A contingent of Missoula County Public Schools officials will soon fly south to sunny San Diego to attend the National School Board Association conference, at a total cost to taxpayers of roughly $6,500. Board member Scott Bixler and Chairwoman Rosemary Harrison will attend, as will two district staff: Superintendent Jim Clark and Executive Secretary Trudi Garner.
Who gets to go and who doesn’t has raised questions in the minds of some Missoulians. At a recent board meeting, parent Teresa Jacobs expressed concern “that the district was sending a veteran trustee, Harrison, whose term was expiring about the same time of the conference, and two paid staff members instead of another eligible trustee [Carol Bellin] who was in the middle of her term.”
NSBA Communications Director Barbara Hunter says the conference is geared primarily for “board members as well as superintendents.”
In Missoula, MCPS Chairwoman Harrison decides who gets to jet-set on behalf of the district. Twice now, Bellin has applied to attend the national conference, and twice she has been summarily denied.
“She [Bellin] looks at things in a different way than pretty much the whole rest of the board,” Harrison explains.
Trustee Diane Beck supports Harrison’s decision to keep Bellin on a short leash. Bellin, she says, often speaks her own mind.
“It’s a lone voice, and you know what? It’s okay when it’s at a board meeting,” Beck says. At state or national meetings, however, Beck believes it’s best to present a unified front.
Harrison herself has attended the conference in the past. This year, her seat is up for re-election, and she hasn’t determined whether she will run again. Still, she selected herself for the trip. Harrison insists that regardless of whether she remains on the board, she plans to share information gleaned at the conference with the full board.
Jacobs, though, describes Harrison’s self-selection as a conflict of interest and questions the selection process.
“The result of that process smells quite fishy to me,” she says.
Perhaps that’s the smell of San Diego Bay.