Amid a backdrop of shrinking budgets and fewer students, Craig Barringer became the Libby School District’s new superintendent on July 1. Barringer replaces K.W. Maki, who held the position for 16 years and announced his retirement last October.
Barringer has spent the last 16 years in the Conrad School District; 13 years as the high school principal and three years as superintendent. Originally from Darby, Barringer said he and his family were looking to return to western Montana and the opening in Libby gave him that opportunity.
“After 16 years in one place you sort of know what to expect when you walk through the door every morning,” Barringer said of his time in Conrad. “(But) I’m excited to be here and become part of the community.”
Barringer was one of nine applicants and five finalists for the job. The school board conducted interviews in late January and selected the Conrad superintendent in early February.
“We were looking for someone who had a background in both education and administration,” said school board member John Carlson.
Prior to becoming principal and superintendent in Conrad, Barringer taught at schools in Fort Benton and Cut Bank. He earned his bachelors in elementary education and teaching from Western Montana College and his masters degree in administration from the University of Montana in 1998.
Barringer said the challenges he faced in Conrad are similar to the ones Libby faces today: a shrinking budget and a shrinking student population. In 1994, 2,180 students attended Libby’s public schools. In 2013, that number had fallen to 1,131. Fewer students have meant bigger cuts in recent years, including laying off teachers and staff and closing entire schools. A few months ago, the district decided to drop Libby High School from Class A to Class B beginning in the 2015 – 2016 school year.
“It takes a lot of planning (when schools shrink like that) and you have to look years ahead,” he said, adding that it’s important to ensure that nessesary cuts don’t negatively impact education.
Carlson said he hopes Barringer can a do more to convey the school district’s needs to the community. He said as Libby’s population gets older, fewer people have children in school and don’t have a connection to the system. Carlson specifically cited the failure to pass a $350,000 operations levy in 2013.
“There was not a clear message to the community as to why we needed the levy,” Carlson said.
Regardless of what happened in the past, Carlson said it was still surprising when Maki stepped down after 16 years at the helm of Libby’s schools.
“Maki has been a pleasant presence in this community for a long time. He was always willing to meet people and be a face for the school district,” Carlson said. “It was a shock, no one thought he would ever step down.”