Local Districts Welcome New Superintendents

Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Libby each welcome top educators as students head back to class

By Justin Franz

Bigfork Superintendent Takes Reins As Enrollment Increases

For six years, the Bigfork School District faced a problem that has impacted many educational institutions in small town Montana: declining enrollment. But that trend began to change in 2012 and now, as the school’s population continues to grow, Bigfork’s newly minted superintendent is trying to figure out how to address the issue without negatively impacting the school’s quality education.

Matt Jensen, who took over for interim Superintendent Russ Kinser on July 1, said out-of-district enrollment has skyrocketed in recent years and that has worried some people in the district.

“We’re looking to find a balance of accepting out-of-district students without risking what makes our schools so special, like small class sizes,” he said.

During the 2011-2012 school year, there were 757 students in the district, but this year Jensen estimates there will be about 840 pupils between the elementary and high schools.

With the current student population, Jensen said the school is still able to offer class sizes that are smaller than the state average. For example, while the state recommends that a fourth grade class can have one teacher and 28 students, Jenson said Bigfork likes to keep the number down to one teacher and 20 students. Because of those ratios, parents from outside of Bigfork want their students to go there. However, now the school is starting to turn away some out-of-district students.

“I don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg and I don’t want to hurt our school’s culture by over crowding it,” he said.

Besides trying to keep a lid on the district’s class sizes, Jensen said the district is also looking at improving and expanding the high school’s facilities, but notes that those efforts are still “very exploratory.” Although the high school’s buildings are fine for now, Jensen said the district wants to be proactive about its facilities.

New Columbia Falls Superintendent Hopes Maintain School’s Success

New Superintendent Steve Bradshaw has an extensive resume and has seen the inside of many schools. But just six weeks into his new gig as Columbia Falls’ top educator, Bradshaw has already realized there is something special about the school system there.

Bradshaw said he is impressed by the quality of the school board, administration and students he has met during in tenure thus far and he can’t wait to become part of the community.

“I’d like to end my career here in Columbia Falls, be that five years, seven years or 10 years from now,” he said.

Bradshaw had served as the superintendent in the Sitka School District in Alaska since 2001 and before that was principal there. Originally from Wyoming, Bradshaw graduated from what is today Montana State University-Billings with a bachelor’s degree and later received a master’s degree from Montana State University. He was a teacher and principal in Hardin from 1976 to 1982 and a principal at Red Lodge High School from 1995 to 1998. In between he worked in Alaska. In 2011, he was named the Alaska Superintendent of the Year.

Bradshaw said he was lucky that he didn’t immediately need a new job and was able to be selective when he and his wife, a native Montanan, began looking for a way to move back a few years ago. Before even applying for the position in Columbia Falls, which was previously held by Michael Nicosia for nearly two decades, Bradshaw said he did a lot of research about the school district. What he found impressed him and when the school board offered him the job in February he gladly accepted it.

Among the school district’s biggest challenges, Bradshaw said, is offering a quality education as costs go up and budgets remain flat. But he also said a big part of his job will be working to keep and attract good teachers that encourage students to become life-long learners.

“Education shouldn’t just be a regurgitation of information, but it should be something that gives students a thirst for knowledge and information,” he said.

Bradshaw added that he wants to improve technology resources at the school, noting how important those skills will be in the future for students.

The new superintendent hopes to have an open dialog with the students, staff and parents within the school district and said that they are the ones who should set the agenda for the district’s future. He said while he may have ideas of how to change or improve things in the future, his first job will be to observe.

“You don’t go and fix something if it’s not broken,” he said. “This will be a learning year for me.”

New Libby Superintendent Settles In After Long Stint in Conrad

Just six weeks into the job as Libby’s top school official, Craig Barringer is already recognizing some of its challenges, most notably a shrinking budget and student body.

Barringer replaced former Superintended K.W. Maki who led Libby’s schools for 16 years and announced his retirement last fall. Barringer was previously the superintendent and principal in the Conrad School District for more than 15 years.

When Barringer talked to the Beacon earlier this summer, he noted that many of the financial issues Libby was facing were similar to the ones he faced in Conrad. But now that he has gotten his hands dirty, Barringer realizes that the budget is even tighter in Lincoln County. He said one reason it’s more of a challenge in Libby is that there are oil and gas funds that help lift Conrad’s budget and help make it a little more flexible.

In 1994, 2,180 students attended Libby’s public schools. In 2013, that number had fallen to 1,131. Fewer students has 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’s high school athletic programs from Class A to Class B beginning in the 2015–2016 school year.

Because of the smaller budget, Barringer said one upcoming improvement project has been delayed. He said the school district hoped to build new kitchen facilities at both the middle and high schools. The current kitchens can only be used to serve food, not prepare it, so the school district has to contract out its food services. The district had hoped to change that to where meals could be made on campus and a design firm suggested it would cost nearly $250,000. But when the one bid for the project came back it was nearly twice that amount.

“We didn’t get the bids we wanted so we’re going to reevaluate the project,” Barringer said, adding that one of the reasons the bid came in so high was that the school wanted most of the work completetd before students returned.

Barringer said the days before students return on Aug. 28 will be busy ones especially as staff and teachers get to know their new student information system, Infinite Campus. The system keeps track of grades, attendance and meal plans.

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