This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.
Last month, Missoula County Public Schools announced that its months-long search for a permanent replacement for former Superintendent Rob Watson was finally over. Starting July 1, the torch will pass to current Kalispell Schools Superintendent Micah Hill, who took his position in the Flathead Valley in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Montana Free Press caught up with Hill recently to chat about his transition to Missoula and what he makes of the political atmosphere around public school issues.
Missoula weighs in on superintendent search
An Omaha-based consulting firm gathered feedback from the Missoula community Monday regarding what it wants from a new school superintendent, part of the district’s ongoing search for former superintendent Rob Watson’s replacement.
MTFP: What’s at the top of your to-do list once your feet hit the ground as Missoula’s new superintendent?
Hill: I’ve heard some concerns around the [MCPS] strategic plan and fully implementing that and being able to move the district forward in a way that ensures that we’re developing that educational potential for kids. But also, valuing the hard work and effort that goes into being an educator. I certainly heard a lot about that through my meet-and-greets with some of the concerns that were brought up by staff. It just seems like there’s maybe some frustrations, sometimes in communication, sometimes just in the complexities of the job and feeling supported and knowing how to handle challenging students or challenging situations.
MTFP: When this search was launched last fall, there was a real thirst among community members to find a new superintendent who will stick around Missoula for the long haul. How do you plan to address or assuage those concerns?
Hill: It wasn’t listed in the job description, “Must also be able to walk on water.” When you look through the community feedback and stakeholder input, it’s a huge job … It doesn’t dissuade me from wanting to do the work or lead initiatives. But it’s a two-way street for the community and the superintendent to be able to work together to provide that type of longevity. If the position is always about this political side of things, I don’t think that’s why we got into education. We truly want to be educational leaders, we want to move the needle on student improvement and faculty improvement and job satisfaction.
MTFP: Public education is also a major issue in the Legislature right now. What are you seeing there that could impact MCPS and your new role leading the district?
Hill: Where do you start? We were talking this morning about the election changes and going to an every-two-years cycle and extending the terms for trustees, changing some of those election laws related to how schools budget and when. There’s also some of this legislation that comes out of, I’ll just call it a “manufactured crisis in education,” where we’re really focused on things that aren’t happening within our schools that are part of a larger national conversation.
I don’t think we’ve even come close to moving the needle on teacher pay for larger districts. Even the new allocations and funding, they’re going to support the smaller districts … but when you look at those formulas, and they’re adding $1 million into the TEACH Act, it has absolutely no impact on 75% of the school districts in Montana. That’s not really going to move us from 50th to 49th. We’re still going to be 50th in teacher pay across the nation.
On the bright side, at the end of the day we do what we do best and we adapt and we change and we pivot where we have to and then we make the best of every situation given what we have.
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