Live From the War Room



Board candidates gear up for school closure showdown

Ask G. G. Weix how her two-week-old campaign for a seat on Missoula's volunteer school board is going, and she'll just laugh.

"Well," she says, "I'd say it's going very ... rapidly."

Weix, a University of Montana anthropology professor and newly minted mom, is part of a loose phalanx of parents and political activists who've spent the last year fighting tooth and nail against plans to close several Missoula elementary schools. Defeated in a district board vote after months of public-meeting combat, critics of board and administration policy have decided to take the fight to the streets-and voters.

Two of the seven elementary board seats are up for election April 6. Jenda Cummings and Rosemary Harrison, incumbents who voted in favor of controversial administration plans to close Roosevelt, Dickinson and Prescott schools, face Weix and Debra Sears, both of whom insist that there are other ways to make ends meet.

School board candidates Debra Sears and G.G. Weix are battling incumbents Jenda Cummings and Rosemary Harrison for the two upcoming openings. Sears and Weix are anti-closure, Cummings and Harrison are pro-closure.
Photo by Chad Harder

The two anti-closure candidates hope to join Suzette Dussault and Barb Seekins, the two current board trustees who oppose shuttering schools, to form a four-vote majority and reverse the closure decisions. Board Chairman Michael Kupilik and District Superintendent Mary Vagner-both targets of considerable, sometimes personal, criticism from their opponents-favor closure.

Meanwhile, Dussault and Seekins introduced their own budget at a recent board meeting. Their breakdown of the numbers, which they say is based on actual expenditures rather than administration projections, would keep all elementary schools open. The board's majority has refused to consider this alternative budget.

"The school closure decision can be reversed at any time, since we haven't voted on a budget yet," Seekins says. "This goes beyond refusing to look at our budget. There's an ingrained reluctance to look at anything different."

Weix and Sears are most definitely running as a slate, producing joint campaign literature aimed at convincing voters that the district's present course points to disaster for the central-city neighborhoods surrounding the targeted schools. They're backed by a broad coalition including neighborhood activists and parents from across the district. Both say they've mobilized dozens of volunteers for literature drops and meetings.

"We've been doing literature drops and we've had 80 people or so helping out with those, which is an amazing number," Sears says. "People just want to help do something about what's happening in our neighborhoods."

The Weix/Sears campaign and the long, sometimes ugly debate over Missoula's educational future have pushed Cummings and Harrison into a slightly more uneasy alliance. They too are teaming up to produce literature and coordinate campaign activities, despite a gulf between their political backgrounds.

"I'm a life-long liberal, and Rosemary is pretty much a life-long conservative," says Cummings. "There are many things we don't agree on. But we've found common ground here on this issue, and we have a broad base of support. This is really a coalition that crosses party boundaries."

Cummings says that she and Harrison have numerous supporters, though they tend to be less vocal than the activists backing Weix and Sears. According to Cummings, their campaigns are particularly strong in the University area, the Rattlesnake, South Hills and Farviews neighborhoods, none of which is home to a school on the closure list.

All this means that an election usually marked by subdued campaigning and light turnout is shaping up as a referendum on the supremely controversial subject of school closure. The board's current majority hews to District administrators' vision of a streamlined, centralized elementary system. After losing well over 800 elementary students to demographic shifts in the '90s, the theory goes, the only alternative to school closure would be to slash programs like athletics and fine arts.

Weix and Sears, however, say that very theory is bankrupt in the wake of a 3.5-percent funding increase from the current Legislature, new special ed money and federal cash aimed at reducing class sizes. They favor budget alternatives that would preserve all elementary schools.

"I want to reframe the issues a little bit," Weix says. "The frame has been that we must close schools. We should reframe that into looking at what the strengths of our schools now are. It's been presented that we have to close schools or cut fine arts or athletics."

While Weix and Sears both stress the need for innovative approaches to the problem of school funding-Weix is particularly excited about fostering new, cost-free partnerships with UM-Cummings and Harrison say they've already looked at the options. And school closure, both say, is a painful necessity.

"We certainly have a lot of support from people who respect what we've done, people who think we've acted in the interests of the district as a whole," says Harrison. "I think we made our decisions not wanting to wait, realizing that we have a chance to streamline the system and reinvest in programs that have been cut in the past."

All four candidates say they're swamped by the demands of a short campaign season overshadowed by the bitter school closure issue, once memorably described by a parent as "a war of attrition."

"I've just got these piles of paper," Cummings says with mock despair as she surveys her home. Weix, Sears and Harrison likewise say that only strong corps of volunteers make their battles for the unpaid trustee slots possible.

"Life is busy right now, but it's supposed to be," Sears says. "We can drink tea in our dotage and watch the world whirl by then, if we so choose."

Polls will be open until 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 6.

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