School board candidate questionnaire: Bill Bronson

Name: Bill Bronson

Age: 65

 Occupation: Attorney/Adjunct College Instructor/Executive Director, Cascade County Law Clinic

Relevant experience:

  • Background in public law, employment and labor issues (including collective bargaining) and administrative law;
  • 12 years teaching experience (college level)
  • Member, Great Falls City Commission for 12 years, with experience in developing and managing significant, complex budgets, and overseeing policies related to public safety, recreation, and economic development;
  • Member, Holy Spirit Catholic School Board, 2005-2010 (chair, 2006-2007), during which time the board implemented and oversaw policies and programs identical to the public school system, as well as implementation of a pre-kindergarten program;
  • Member, City-County Board of Health, 2012-2017, overseeing local public health programs and initiatives.

For incumbents, number of years on the GFPS board: Not applicable.

Q: Why are you running for school board?

A: The education of our young people is important to me. I’m a product of the Great Falls school system (CMR, Class of 1973), as well as the son of a long-time, national award-winning Montana high school educator and forensics/drama coach. Giving back to the system in some way, to ensure that other have the same opportunities I had, is a guiding principle for me.

Earlier this year, several community members, knowing of my long-time support for public education, approached me about running for the school board. They convinced me that now is the time to give back to this school system with the benefit of the interests and life experiences that I owe in no small part to what I received from teachers and other in this system many years ago.

Q: If elected, what would be your top three priorities?

 A: 1. Addressing with other board members the annual district’s operation budget; improving salaries to attract and retain quality educators; providing curriculum, technology, and teaching materials to support student learning; and hopefully reinstating professional development and staff training.

2. Going to the schools, visiting staff and students, to get a better understanding of how they are doing, what they perceive as their success and how those can be maintained, and also get an appreciation for what they see as weaknesses and how they can be improved. As a city commissioner, I did this with our city departments and found it to be the best way to ensure that our departments were serving the public well.

3. Supporting continued engagement of the business and professional community with our schools, and with students, to help them with skill development and making decisions on career options.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing GFPS for the next three years (the length of a term)?

Over the past 10 years, more than $10 million has been cut from the local school budget, and more than 100 teaching positions have been eliminated. It is harder now for our district to hire and retain teachers. Many schoolbooks are outdated. The negative impact on students, teachers, and future growth of our community is unacceptable. It’s imperative that we begin a process of reconstruction and renewal—a process that starts with passage of the elementary school levy.

It is unfortunate that as part of this process, we now will have to deal with the impact of COVID-19. I fully anticipate that, as students return to school late this year, we will have to look at some new formats for protecting students and staff from a recurrence of this pandemic. This is a challenge that we must all tackle together and apply our wide variety of skills and talents to making the necessary adjustments.

Q: What do you think are the three biggest strengths of the district?

A:

  •  The quality and enthusiasm of our local teachers: they give so much of themselves to work with our young people.
  • The commitment made by our business and professional community to help students develop skills useful for future employment: this is part of an overall strategy that allows students to look at a range of educational and work options when they graduate from high school.
  • A strong private support component with groups like our local parent associations, Kids Education YES, and the Great Falls Public School Foundation: These individuals and organizations are critical to the success of our public education system.

Q: How would you approach budget in terms of balancing costs with available resources?

A: We need to start with first principles: our state constitution sets forth the goal of establishing a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. That same constitution mandates equality of educational opportunity for each person of the state and that our legislature fund and distribute the state’s share of funding to all school districts in an equitable manner. As a trustee, I will advocate for the legislature to live up to that constitutional responsibility, so that we have the resources we need to develop budgets that properly meet young people’s needs.

In developing local budgets, we must be mindful that what we really doing is making an investment in the future of people—the students, as well as the community at large. Although we can probably never obtain all the dollars necessary to make the most optimal investment, we must make sure that we are allocating resources to get as close we can to the optimum. What that also means is that before we starting making cuts anywhere, we consider the potential negative impacts these will have in the long run on young people and the community at large, and always be prepared to revisit ways to bring in the revenue to avoid these negative outcomes.

Q: How would you interact with staff to learn about GFPS operations, education regulations and stay informed about the items you’re being asked to vote on?

A: My professional training and experience compel me to be thorough in gathering and distilling information needed to develop policies and make decisions. I read every document that is brought to my attention, and frequently do my own research and investigation to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I ask questions, and generally do not stop asking until I get the answers required to make informed decisions. The public has every right to expect that our school board members take this approach.

Q: How would you communicate with the public to hear their concerns and keep them informed about GFPS operations?

A:

  • Members of the public with questions and concerns should come to school board meetings to ask their questions and express their opinions. I welcome this input.
  • People should also feel comfortable contacting individual board members to make inquiries and offer opinions. I will always make myself available for that purpose.

Q: How do you think the district has handled the COVID-19 school closures and what kind of long-term impact do you think it will have on the district?

 A: A recent statement by a local high school teacher friend of mine says it best: “[A]ll teachers in Great Falls have been busting their humps [since late March] to make sure kids get some semblance of normalcy in an insane situation.”  We as a community owe our teachers and administrators a debt of gratitude; they will need our continued public support and appreciation as we continue to cope with the consequences of COVID-19.

In recent days, I’ve communicated with several local teachers to get their sense of what the short-term and long-term impact will be the necessary adjustments made to teaching formats. Three things I heard more than once struck me as the most significant:

  • teachers will have to engage in some “emotional triage” as we return to the usual schooling formats, helping students readjust to the typical world of school. We forget that many children have love and support at home. Others do not and may not have had a strong presence to navigate them during these unsettled times. This requires that teachers first measure as best they can the emotional health of our young people.
  • teachers will then need to assess academic standing. Every grade is going to have to find out where the grade below them left off before schools closed and learning shifted to a “long-distance format.”   Teachers cannot start the new school year jumping into grade level content when they did not finish the previous year.  They will need to determine: when do we catch up, if at all? And, how do we implement summer school, if necessary?
  • our teachers and administrators will also need to know that expectations of them remain realistic, and they should not be pressed with new programming thrown at them in piecemeal fashion on top of what has already been a challenging year. Our teachers should know that they can use their best professional judgment to allow them to make those hard decisions as far as what is necessary to teach at each grade level and what can be taught in another grade.

Q: An operational levy is on the May 5 ballot, along with these school board seats. Recognizing that unless you’re an incumbent you don’t have a say on whether it should be there, but what is your view on the use of operational levies for school funding?

 A: I support the proposed mill levy, and had I been on the board earlier this year, I would have voted to send it to the voters for their consideration. The Board did its homework and offered a measured response to our current budget problems.

Local financial support for our schools is a critical component of overall funding needs. The current funding system only allows for state support up to a certain percent of our overall budget. We can’t get even close to an optimum level of full funding without operational levies. And, as stated previously, I view all education funding as an investment in people’s lives.