Kalispell Public Schools to Hire Interim Superintendent

The Kalispell Board of Trustees on Tuesday voted to hire a temporary superintendent for the 2023-24 school year and declined to interview five applicants for the full-time role

By Denali Sagner
The entrance to the Kalispell Public Schools office in downtown Kalispell on Sept. 27, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Kalispell Public Schools Board of Trustees will hire an interim superintendent for the upcoming school year and reopen the search for a full-time superintendent next fall in hopes of fielding a larger applicant pool.

The board on Tuesday evening reviewed the applications of five candidates for superintendent, voting not to move forward with interviews with any of the candidates. The board instead opted to search for an interim, or temporary, superintendent to fill the vacancy left by current Superintendent Micah Hill upon his departure this summer, and to begin a new search process in the fall. Board members cited concerns over the qualifications of the five applicants, and said they hoped that reopening the position in the fall would attract a wider pool of candidates.

Of the five applicants, two were made available to the public during discussions over whether or not to move forward with interviews. The two named applicants were Robert Lewandowski, superintendent of the Colstrip Public Schools and former superintendent of the St. Ignatius Public Schools, and Leslie Bonds, a Texas-based educator with experience managing charter schools and large public school districts.

The board entered executive session while reviewing candidate applications — a statute of Montana code that allows public meetings to be closed to protect confidential personal information.

While trustees said that the candidates boasted impressive educational qualifications, many raised concerns over their lack of experience overseeing large districts like Kalispell.

“They mean a lot to these small towns, but I don’t think they have the skill set they need to lead a AA District,” Lance Isaak, trustee and former board chair, said.

Kalispell is the only AA high school district in the Flathead Valley. The Kalispell Public Schools enrolled 3,099 high students as of October 2022, as well as 3,094 elementary school students. AA, the largest high school district designation in the state, also includes the high schools of Belgrade, Butte, Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula.

“We really do need to try to find someone with AA experience,” Vice-Chair Diane Morton Stout said, adding that it is something that “we owe our community, we owe our kids.”

Some trustees noted that Bonds, unlike the other applicants, does have experience with larger districts, including her time as superintendent of a district with 30,000 students. However, others raised concerns over Bonds as an out-of-state candidate.

“Even though she might have experience in a large district, she doesn’t have experience in a Montana large district,” Trustee Rebecca Linden said.

Trustee Scott Warnell said that community members have emphasized the importance of hiring a Montana-based superintendent during focus groups and expressed his support for moving forward with an interim.

After a short discussion, the trustees reached unanimous agreement to not interview any of the five candidates and to open up an application for an interim superintendent.  

“I think it just gives us more time and more options,” Trustee Jennifer Sevier said.

Board Chair Sue Corrigan noted that all of the five applicants can apply for the interim position if they choose to, and will also be able to apply for the full-time superintendent position again in the fall.

Corrigan noted that reopening the position in the fall might attract a wider selection of applicants, citing the late posting of the job this year as one of the reasons for a limited pool of applicants. She said that she has “a lot of confidence in our central administrative staff right now” to work with an interim, and said that filling the position temporarily would allow the district to pursue a number of options, including hiring an internal candidate, offering a full-time position to an interim if they work well with the district, and conducting another hiring process entirely to fill the full-time role.

Kalispell is one of an unprecedented number of school districts across the state hiring a new top administrator this year, a trend that has put strains on the already tight educational job market in Montana.

According to data from Rob Watson, executive director of School Administrators of Montana, superintendent turnover rates have risen in Montana in recent years, a trend that Watson said is expected to persist this year. The state experienced a 16.5% superintendent turnover rate in the 2019-20 school year, 22.3% in 2020-21 and 25.9% in 2021-22.

As of late March, Watson said that he knew of at least 40 Montana school superintendents leaving their current position. There are currently 14 open superintendent positions listed on the School Administrators of Montana website.

The Kalispell Public Schools will post the interim position today, and the Board of Trustees will meet on May 2 to review interim superintendent candidates.

More information on meetings of the Kalispell Board of Trustees can be found here.