School board questionnaire: Jan Cahill
Name: Jan Cahill
Relevant experience: Education (Teacher and administrator for nearly 40 years); Chairman of the Board
Number of years on the GFPS Board: 15
Q: Why are you running for school board?
A: I am running because I believe in public education. Education is the foundation upon which our society and economy thrive. Children need a firm educational foundation for personal growth and intellectual development in order to be informed and productive citizens. The Great Falls Public Schools continue to provide a high quality education every day to over 10,400 students. I am running for the school board to continue to be a part of a dynamic board dedicated to maintain and expand on the many strengths of our district while efficiently and effectively governing the second largest school district in Montana.
Q: If elected, what would be your top three priorities?
A: My top three priorities (in no particular order of importance) are:
- Recruit, and just as important, retain high quality teachers, administrators and support staff. This requires competitive salary at all levels of staffing.
- Continue to support and expand curriculum offerings for all students. This includes college bound students, trades and industrial bound students and military bound students. We need to recognize that not every graduate is going to go to a traditional four-year college/university. Many exciting opportunities in our trades and industries provide great careers at significantly high pay levels. Our largest employer is MAFB. We need to continue to provide our JROTC program for those students who are looking at a career in one of our armed forces.
- Work with local businesses, University of Providence and Great Falls College-MSU, along with community parochial schools on showing the community the absolute value of education to our community and nation. Every child must be provided the same educational opportunity previous generations enjoyed throughout the last century into the current century.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing GFPS for the next three years?
A: There are many challenges facing GFPS in the next three years and beyond. A major challenge for the current board and experienced by previous boards is a funding system designed almost a quarter of a century ago that unfortunately creates an adversarial environment regarding school funding. The board and supporters of school funding need to try to reach out to more community members regarding school funding. Another challenge is the need to recruit and retain high quality employees. This requires competitive pay for cross guards, food services, classroom aides and other support positions. Another challenge is providing education to students who come to our schools every day without the benefit of good nights’ sleep, a nutritious breakfast and possibly dinner. Many come from a home that basic survival trumps educational learning. These trauma students face enormous obstacles to learning and unfortunately some dropout of school. Great Falls Public Schools must continue to provide a ray of hope to these students as well as a quality education.
Q: What do you think are the biggest strengths of the district?
A: Without a doubt one of the biggest strengths of the Great Falls Public Schools are the district employees. The events of the past four weeks (COVID-19) I believe demonstrated to parents, grandparents and community members the extraordinary professional work accomplished by teachers and administrators. Their dedication to every child is a strength. Another strength of the district was passage of the bond issue that resulted in major additions to our two high schools, one new and one soon-to-be completed elementary school, and major improvements to all schools. This will have a positive impact on our schools for many, many years.
Q: How would you approach the budget in terms of balancing costs with available resources?
A: The Office of Public Instruction determines the maximum operational budget (with or without a vote) in the elementary and high school districts. I would continue to support the current process of a committee of three trustees working with school administrators reviewing revenue and anticipated costs. This process includes input from community members at a series of budget meetings. As a board member, I compare the needs of the district with available resources, state and local. This approach to the school budget resulted in requests for an elementary operational levy five times during the past ten years and a high school operational levy four times during the past ten years.
Q: How would you interact with staff to learn about GFPS operations, education regulations and stay informed about GFPS operations?
A: For the last fifteen years, I have maintained an “open door” policy regarding information about GFPS. This includes providing my telephone number and email address on the district website for staff and community members to contact me. It is important for people to understand that school board members have no legal authority away from board meetings.
Q: How would you communicate with the public to hear their concerns and keep them informed about GFPS operations?
A: My telephone number (899-1988) and email address (email@example.com) has been available for many years on the District website for members of the community to contact me. I try to be as accessible as possible to anyone wishing to discuss the school district. I encourage people attend board meetings and become better informed about the school district.
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: I am in awe of the way our teachers, administrators and support staff worked together on providing educational opportunities for 10,400 students with less than 14 hours notice from the Governor on a late Sunday afternoon. Putting together a program that included online learning, classroom packets for home, food services and the plethora of other issues in less than a day is a strong indicator of the high quality of our very able staff. One impact of COVID-19 while not necessarily long-term is nevertheless significant, high school graduation. Any decision regarding graduation will depend on limitations, if any, set by the governor and local health officials. For the long-term, there must be an understanding that school classrooms were not designed to maintain a 6’ separation of students. We simply do not have the space for such a requirement. I remain optimistic that we will return to a much more normal life before students return to school on Aug. 26.
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: The operational budget is set by the Office of Public Instruction. OPI determines the maximum budget with a vote (levy) as well as the maximum budget without a vote. The formula is set up on the basis that the state provides 80% of the average budget and the voters of the district provide up to the additional 20% of the budget. This formula results in voted levies from time to time. In years where operational costs do not exceed state and local revenue there is no levy. When revenue from the state and local revenue from previous years do not meet budget requirements the board either makes cuts to the budget, uses reserves or a combination of both, or requests approval of a levy. Until the Legislature changes the current formula for school budgets there will always be a need to look at an operational levy.