Gov. Steve Bullock called on those attending the Greater Gallatin United Way’s annual meeting at the Emerson Cultural Center Wednesday to be “champions” of early education as he builds toward proposing a meaningful investment for children in Montana.

“I hope that at the end of the day you’ll be part of the leadership that really makes a big difference in this because you have worked so well and made such an impact in your community,” the governor said.

The cornerstone of his three main points of focus as governor — jobs, education and a more efficient government — is the state’s education system, Bullock said, noting investments the state has made in kindergarten through 12th grade.

During the speech, he cited the economic benefits of investing in early education, saying that every dollar spent on early childhood programs gets a $7 to $9 return later on.

His proposal, which he said he would make during the next legislative session, will focus on creating pre-kindergarten programs that get children prepared to enter school.

“It’s time that we make sure that we have high-quality early learning and care opportunities for all our kids,” Bullock said after his speech.

While Bullock provided the keynote address, a good part of the meeting’s focus was on Carol Townsend, the nonprofit’s CEO and president. She’s retiring in May, 26 years after she first joined the board of directors.

Townsend was laid up with a bad cold and unable to address the crowd, but incoming CEO and president Danica Jamison read a statement Townsend had prepared. The statement summarized how far the nonprofit has come from its inception 35 years ago when it took a $3,000 loan to pay its bills.

Today, the Greater Gallatin United Way boasts $1.4 million in revenue, said Joe Militello, vice chair of the board of directors and vice president of investments at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. He added that of the revenue, more than $1.3 million went to programs and services the nonprofit provides to the community.

Jason Bacaj may be reached at jasonb@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.

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