School board candidate questionnaire: Kim Skornogoski

Name: Kim Skornogoski

Age: 43

skornogoski photoOccupation: United Way of Cascade County Marketing Director

Relevant experience: current school trustee, parent, volunteer with Kids Education Yes, served on the school board budget committee, attended several statewide trustee trainings

For incumbents, number of years on the GFPS board: three

Q: Why are you running for school board?

A: These past few weeks have opened my eyes as a parent to how hard teachers and our public schools work to give every child in our community the best education we can afford.

My 7-year-old daughter had lessons online within a day of schools closing and a packet to work on within a week. Her teacher creates three recorded video lessons daily and another live teaching session online. And she calls my daughter to offer caring pep talks.

Despite all these efforts, it’s clear this isn’t the same as being in the classroom.

It’s also clear that schools matter.

I am a passionate advocate for education. In my first term as trustee, I’ve worked hard to study issues, ask questions, listen to the public and make decisions that benefit all students.

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

A: Closing the achievement gap – that will almost certainly be widened after the coronavirus closures – that impacts low-income students is a top priority.

Expanding opportunities for low-income children to attend the high-quality preschool education offered at Skyline would improve kindergarten readiness.

Improving student attendance, particularly at the middle school level, will impact their education outcomes and their success as an employee for years to come.

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

A: When school resumes, whether this spring or next falls, GFPS will need to assess 10,000 students to determine each child’s learning gaps. Then teachers will need to develop individual plans to help struggling students fill those gaps and keep on pace for the upcoming year.

To do that, the district will need to build afterschool and summer school programs, that haven’t been offered for years because of past budget cuts.

Considering GFPS cut more than 100 teachers in 10 years, the budget remains a challenge. Recent federal cuts impact schools with higher poverty rates. Twelve of 15 elementary schools have overcrowded classrooms. When levies don’t pass it impacts staff morale. Our schools struggle to find teachers, a product of noncompetitive salaries. Like every employer, the district has rising insurance costs.

All of these problems directly impact delivering quality education. Beyond that, our schools are combating homelessness, hunger and substance abuse.

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

A: As a parent and as a trustee, I appreciate that Great Falls Public Schools sets bold goals for student achievement. And once they reach those goals, they set more ambitious ones.

For example, the district approached the Graduation Matters initiative with cradle-to-career strategies, reaching out to the community to address all of the challenges to student achievement.

The effort saw amazing success. So having achieved the initial goal of cutting the number of dropouts in half, the district set a new bold goal of having 92 percent of students graduate on time with a diploma that’s meaningful to them. That would place Great Falls among the best in the country.

GFPS is innovative. Paris Education Center is a model for alternative high schools. The Immersion Program uses Native American history and traditions to teach struggling students history, science and math. Starting in middle school, students build, market and sell products through the CTE program.

These strengths are only possible because of GFPS’ passionate and talented staff in every position and every school.

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

A: The No. 1 strategy to improving education outcomes is decreasing class sizes, so as trustees we need to prioritize preserving staff and try to restore shredded teacher training budgets.

While Great Falls has struggled to pass levies to cover basic inflation increases, other schools in the district are passing general fund levies and extra levies to improve technology.

Great Falls spends less per student than all other Montana AA districts – in fact some AA districts spend $3,000 more per student. For younger students, that means crowded classrooms and less individual attention. For older students, that also means fewer opportunities.

Our students must compete for jobs and scholarships against students whose communities invested $30,000 more in their education.

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: As the mother of a Sunnyside second-grader, I’m in our schools every day. Through my job, I regularly work with teachers and administrators toward the goal of getting every student to graduate on time prepared for college or a career.

I’m immersed in education. I try to be a good student – one who studies and asks questions.

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

A: The school board needs to be transparent, responsive and accountable to taxpayers. It plays an important role in representing the community investment in our public schools. Taxpayers must have faith in the direction of the district and know that the board is their voice. In my time on the board, I’ve worked to listen and be available to the public, taking time to answer questions and explain my decisions to the public.

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: These past few weeks have revealed what an amazing team we have at Great Falls Public Schools. As a parent, I’ve seen our teachers, administrators, janitors and food service staff step up during an unprecedented time.

As a trustee, I’ve seen how quickly the team responded at a district level. Other schools around the state were weeks behind our district in delivering online education materials and paper packets to students. Within days, our district was handing out 1,000 meals a day. Teachers are teaching hands-on chemistry classes from their homes and going above and beyond.

Federal coronavirus relief money for schools provides one-time money so districts can offer extra supports, like reading and math coaches, afterschool tutoring and summer credit recovery programs to help struggling students.

Typically when students return from summer break, they backtrack as much as two to three months from where they were at the end of the year. With school closures, students won’t be making the gains they would be if they were in their classrooms and the time away from school will be even longer.

The gap is often wider for low-income students. It will take quick response and hard work to prevent long-term achievement gaps and a lower graduation rate.

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: Great Falls Public Schools is against a wall. The state funding formula only works for schools with steady enrollment increases or sharp declines – not stable or slow growing districts like Great Falls.

So while the state has modestly increased school funding, it does not match inflation. Local levies are the second puzzle piece. The state provides 80 percent of the general budget, and local property owners are asked to pay the remaining 20 percent through local levies.

So when we don’t pass local levies, Great Falls spends less than the state average – which by itself doesn’t cover basic cost increases.

On top of all that, Great Falls has seen federal cuts that eliminate positions like reading coaches and afterschool supports and increase class sizes at high poverty schools.

For decades, local voters supported school levies every year, understanding that local support is part of local control of schools.