When Micah Hill took the helm of Kalispell Public Schools, the second largest employer in Flathead County, he understood the weight of a superintendent’s job, but he couldn’t have known just as heavy it was about to get.
The district announced Hill as the successor to Mark Flatau on March 4 of last year. Then on March 13, Montana confirmed its first positive cases of the novel coronavirus, and 48 hours later the governor announced mandatory school closures.
“We had literally two days to figure out how we were going to be remote, and even then in the back of my mind I was thinking we would be shut down for a couple of weeks and get this under control,” Hill recalled. “But that didn’t happen. It just kept growing.”
The initial two-week statewide school closure ballooned to the rest of the semester. As Hill scrambled to navigate an unprecedented situation, he was effectively working two jobs, finishing out his principal duties at Glacier High School while taking the reins as district head, even if his contract didn’t technically start until July.
“The conversation shifted from being 100% remote to working with the board on, ‘We need to get back to school,’” he said. “All of our energy that summer was spent trying to figure out, ‘How are we going to do this?’ Nobody had done it.”
Now, as the school year nears completion, Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) is the lone large district in Montana that can say it survived 2020-21 without a single closure.
Lance Isaak, chair of the KPS board, said the qualities for which the board hired Hill, including nimble intelligence and wide support within the district, turned out to be ideally suited for a pandemic.
“People trusted him before he even started, and he hasn’t let anyone down in that regard,” Isaak said.
Isaak said Hill consults with a broad array of experts and thoroughly acquaints himself with the best research, which throughout the pandemic gave the board confidence in his recommendations.
“He does his due diligence on every decision he makes,” Isaak said. “His work ethic is high. And as a staff member said, we’re all smarter when Micah comes in the room. I definitely feel very fortunate that we hired him.”
Parents have strong emotions when it comes to their kids, so any superintendent expects to hear a diversity of pointed and at times heated feedback. But the politically charged environment of COVID-19, particularly in regards to face coverings, led to a daily flooding of Hill’s inbox coming from all angles, often with tempers flaring.
On one side, people were calling his recommendation to reopen “foolish” and saying he would “have the blood of our children on your hands should someone die.” On the other extreme, people were telling him the pandemic was a “hoax” and that he was harming children by advocating masks.
Hill said the latter segment has remained far more vocal throughout the school year, and while he has worked hard to listen to everybody’s opinions, he ultimately followed expert advice and overwhelming public comment in favor of face coverings.
“We take great pride in trying to be as inclusive and caring and open as possible,” he said. “I never want to marginalize a group of people whether it’s the minority or not.”
KPS has benefited from stability at the superintendent position for two decades, with Darlene Schottle serving from 2003 until Flatau took over in 2014, and then Flatau announcing his retirement in August 2019 to give the district plenty of time to find a replacement. Ultimately, the board selected a familiar face right here at home over three other finalists from Wisconsin, Utah and Washington.
Hill, a Polson native, has been involved in Kalispell public education since 2001. He taught English at Flathead High, served as dean of students and activities director at the junior high and was assistant principal at Glacier High for 11 years before becoming principal in 2018. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English education from Montana State University and a master’s in educational leadership from the University of Montana.
Two recent votes served as referendums on the leadership and decision-making of both Hill and the school board over the past year: a board vote to renew Hill’s contract and an election in which voters retained most incumbents.
At its April 27 meeting, the school board unanimously voted 11-0 to renew Hill’s contract for a three-year term until June 30, 2024, the maximum term allowed. Vicechair Jack Fallon called the decision a “vote of confidence” in Hill.
The board also voted to increase Hill’s 2021-22 salary from $155,250 to $162,000, which still leaves him as the lowest-paid Class AA superintendent in Montana.
In supporting the pay bump at the meeting, KPS facilities director Greg Naslund said he was “dumbfounded” by the level of support Hill has provided, calling him an “anomaly” and “a unique character” who has the “community’s best interest at heart.”
“He loves his staff,” Naslund said. “He has a stewardship about him that is just a calming effect. He listens to what everybody has to say; regardless of what you feel about him, he values what you have to say. I wholeheartedly support Micah … I feel the support and the leadership and the thoughtfulness that goes into every day.”
“I am fiscally driven,” he continued. “I think everyone knows me now and I am all about saving taxpaying dollars, (but) what he has been doing is above and beyond.”
The April 27 meeting was held amid a heated and high-turnout school board race. When results for the May 4 election were announced the next day, voters had retained four out of five incumbents in a race that featured a slate of anti-mask challengers.
“I think the community spoke overwhelmingly in support of the school board and the decisions they’re making,” Hill said.
Hill oversees a district with roughly 6,000 students and 750 employees, with enrollment continually growing amid a rapidly expanding local population. He was well aware of the major societal and economic impacts of a district that size shutting down.
Furthermore, the consensus is that in-person learning is best for children’s educational, social and emotional development. On the learning side, Hill said testing shows that “our kids are right where they should be” compared to past years.
“The data is really good for our students who were in school this year,” he said. “The data we don’t have are the kids who were remote.”
Hill is quick to attribute the district’s ability to remain open all year to a sprawling team effort, from a COVID-19 advisory council to other regional superintendents to personnel across the district, as well as a little luck. For his role, Hill was named the region’s superintendent of the year by the Northwest Montana Association of School Superintendents and is a finalist for the state’s superintendent of the year.
As more of the community gets vaccinated, including kids ages 12-17 now and younger kids likely by fall, and cases remain far lower than during winter, Hill plans to recommend that next school year the district move into phase three of its COVID-19 plan, which encourages but does not require face coverings.
While masks dominate public discourse, Hill points out that phase three would also free up a host of other opportunities lost over the past year, including guest speakers, parents more freely coming in and the community using school facilities.
“In phase three, a lot of those (restrictions) go away,” he said, “and it’s as close to normal as possible.”
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