Rob Clark with the Omaha-based recruitment firm McPherson and Jacobson queries a crowd of Missoula community members Monday about the aspects they'd like to see in a new public school superintendent. The district is currently searching for a successor to former Superintendent Rob Watson. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

MISSOULA — Rob Clark stood at the front of Sentinel High School’s music auditorium Monday evening armed with three questions, each focused on a single theme: What does Missoula want to see in the next superintendent of its public schools?

“I want to get your input, I need to get your input,” said Clark, a regional consultant for the Omaha-based executive recruitment firm McPherson and Jacobson, and himself the superintendent of a small school district in Washington. “It is important to the school board and this district. This job is about kids.”

The responses Clark proceeded to collect constituted the first step in Missoula County Public Schools’ search for a full-time replacement for former Superintendent Rob Watson, who left the position in June to lead the nonprofit School Administrators of Montana. An identical meeting played out Monday night in Seeley Lake, whose high school is part of MCPS. With the community’s feedback in hand, McPherson and Jacobson plans to screen applicants next month and present candidates to Missoula’s school board by late January. If all goes according to the district’s schedule, trustees will announce their selection Feb. 7.

After his brief introduction, Clark turned Monday night’s focus to the roughly 30 parents filtering in and out of the auditorium. He began by asking about the positive aspects of the district and community, telling the audience to “fire away.”

One man raised his hand immediately — Clark had extended the option of anonymity to those gathered — and commended Watson for synchronizing high school schedules across the district and pushing daily high school start times back. Both were measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic but kept in place even after other COVID-inspired policies were retired. Another attendee, who later identified herself to Montana Free Press as Hannah Shepherd, praised the district’s efforts to introduce multilingual education at all academic levels, including a recently altered Spanish language program at Paxson Elementary.

“They changed the format last year, which has its pros and cons,” Shepherd said, referencing the mixed reaction from some parents to the alterations. “But there has been work to get more multilingual education into all the elementary schools in Missoula, and I think that’s a really good move.”

Others spoke about the expansion of arts curriculum at MCPS, about opportunities in industry-based programming and career and technical education, and about the emphasis that teachers and administrators place on student safety. Christina Henderson, a mother of two MCPS students and executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, made particular mention of the Missoula Robotics Team, a STEM-centric student group that builds robots for participation in the national FIRST Robotics Competition. However, Henderson added, some skill-based programming is offered only at certain schools within the district, and she said she hopes a new superintendent will work to ensure such offerings are “equalized.”

Similar small critiques began to scratch at Clark’s second question: What challenges are Missoula and the district facing that an incoming superintendent should be aware of? Hands rose in quicker succession. Parents mentioned staffing issues across the board, from teachers to substitutes to crossing guards, and concerns about adequate mental health support for students. Several shared the view that Missoula’s middle schools need more administrative attention, that they currently feel like a “black hole” between more program-rich elementary and high schools.

State legislator Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, listened for 20 minutes as talk swung from the impacts of Missoula’s recent rampant growth to the politicized nature of public education and resulting anxiety regarding student and teacher safety. Then he quietly raised his hand, acknowledged what had been said, and asked the room what was really needed to advance their visions for the district. A few scattered voices replied, “money.”

“Our superintendent is going to have a tremendous challenge,” said Curdy, a four-term representative who won a seat in the Senate this month. “That challenge is to find the resources to pay for all these things that people desire the school district to have. On the other hand, we’ve seen, at least the last decade or so, a tendency on the part of the Legislature not to adequately fund our schools and depend more and more on local property taxes.”

Curdy added that Watson’s successor will have to work with local public school advocates and the community to inspire a widespread call for more state support — a statement that drew applause from a handful of attendees.

For his final question, Clark narrowed his focus to the personal attributes Missoula expects to see in MCPS’ next leader. The answers he jotted on his notepad ranged from “strategic thinker” and “excellent communicator” to the night’s only nod to recent national culture war controversy: a request from one attendee that the new superintendent rein in the “overt sexualization” of classroom content. 

One parent’s desired attribute stood out for its direct relation to the search itself. It feels, she said, like Missoula is “doing this a lot,” and she wants a superintendent who will stick around. Russ Lodge, who took over for Watson in an interim capacity this school year, is the district’s fourth superintendent since 2009. While that fact clearly fueled some frustration among the attendees, Clark indicated that the tenure of superintendents at MCPS has largely been in line with national averages for a district its size. According to a fall 2022 headcount, roughly 9,260 students are enrolled in MCPS.

“If you look at a medium-sized district, which is defined as somewhere between 10,000 [students] and 25,000, you’re looking at four to five years,” he said. “You see lower numbers than that, and part of that stems from the fact that they’re skewed by interim appointments. A [non-interim] superintendent would stay in a district the size of Missoula between four and five years.”

According to the board’s interim contract with Lodge, approved in March, the MCPS superintendent’s salary is set at $175,000 for the 2022-23 school year.

As Monday’s forum approached the one-hour mark, Clark informed the audience that the district’s superintendent position was already generating applicant interest. The application window is open and slated to close at the end of December. McPherson and Jacobson also intend to launch an online comment portal Wednesday for members of the public who were unable to attend Monday night

Lodge later told MTFP that Clark’s firm will conduct similar meetings with about 30 different stakeholder groups throughout the day Tuesday. That collective feedback from community members and stakeholders will be presented to district trustees at their Dec. 13 meeting. 

“I expect we will have a work session that night as they present to the board,” Lodge said, “and then the board will go from there. They will take the information, integrate it into their thoughts and decide what they want to do with the superintendent.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...