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Six candidates for a Bozeman School Board vacancy were asked on Friday afternoon about the role of the school board and challenges and opportunities facing the district during public interviews.

The Gallatin County Superintendent of Schools Matthew Henry conducted the interviews, with a community panel providing written feedback to Henry afterward.

During the meeting, Henry said he hopes to have a decision before the school board meets Monday evening.

Three of the applicants — Jennifer Ahren Lammers, Cheryl Tusken and Lisa Weaver — ran in the May school board election. The other candidates are Joshua Covington, Ann Marshall and Ryan Williams.

The interviews were open to the public at the Gallatin County Courthouse and streamed remotely via Zoom. Each candidate had about 15 minutes to answer a set of identical interview questions.

The focus group had seven Bozeman School District representatives, including Board Chair Sandy Wilson, Vice Chair Greg Neil, Tami Phillippi, presidents of the Bozeman Schools Foundation and Bozeman Education Association, interim co-superintendents Casey Bertram and Marilyn King and a parent in the district.

There were also seven members selected by Henry’s office, including executive director of Montana DECA, a member of the Sunrise Rotary Club, two attorneys, two members of the American Legion and a former executive of Boeing who also previously served as mayor of Sun Valley, Idaho.

Henry said they were all chosen because of previous work with his office in connection to different programs like the county’s spelling bee and the Declamation Contest. The former Boeing executive had previously offered input on education issues to Henry’s office, he said.

Henry asked each of the candidates a range of questions about the board’s role, the district’s consensus process, what role the district plays in connection to parents and the community, issues facing school districts across the country and why they want to serve as a school board member.

All of the candidates mentioned the importance of ensuring a quality candidate is selected as the district’s next superintendent. Most of the candidates also discussed the challenges and opportunities Bozeman’s growth poses for the district.

The three candidates who did not run in May’s election have a range of backgrounds including information technology, experience as a county superintendent and two decades of service in the U.S. Army.

Covington, who works at a cloud accounting solutions firm, RightNow Works, said he also spent five years as a classroom teacher and has three children in the Bozeman School District.

Covington said he wants to serve as a trustee to help launch the new virtual charter school and to ask questions other board members might not think to ask with his technology background.

The school district plays a large role in Bozeman, acting as a “kind of anchor in the community,” Covington said.

Marshall, who has experience as a special education administrator and a county superintendent in Nebraska, had children, and now has grandchildren, in the district. Now retired, Marshall said she felt like she owed it the community to serve on the board after living in Bozeman for the past 18 years.

One thing the board could do moving forward is to look at what happened in the past year with the pandemic and how it impacted student success and staff, she said.

Marshall said it’s important for the board to listen to parents while also communicating the needs of the district.

Williams is an active U.S. Army officer and department head of the ROTC program at Montana State University, but plans to transition out of active military service in the next few months. The 20 years of experience in the military and serving overseas has given him a unique set of skills, he said.

In the past year, Williams, who has three children in the district, also worked as a substitute teacher in the district when it was experiencing a sub shortage.

It’s the role of the school board to create the vision and culture of the district, while using its core values as guiding principals when making decisions, Williams said.

Weaver, whose grandchildren are in the Bozeman School District, said there’s an interesting dynamic in the district with “a lot of tug of war” over how to provide the best education for children.

As a board member, Weaver said she would be a bridge builder. She said the board and district are doing the best they can, but there are people who feel like they’re not being heard.

Lammers, who has two children in Bozeman schools, said communication in the district is critical.

Lammers said she’s concerned over the acceptance of a divide, whether socioeconomic, political or ideological, happening across the country. She said Bozeman schools are also teaching students citizenship and what it means to be one country.

“The most inspiring things about Bozeman is the commitment to its schools,” she said.

Tusken, whose children are home schooled, was also asked by Henry if she can fairly represent a public school district as a trustee. While her family has been in and out of public schools, she said she wants to be part of a better solution to improve the school system.

Tusken said parents are responsible for the character and moral development of their children and it’s important for the school district to be a partner in that while ensuring what is taught in the curriculum stays unbiased.

Two candidates, Weaver and Tusken, also discussed critical race theory during their interviews.

Weaver said there was a lot going on in American culture around diversity and critical race theory, and it was important to know how people define that.

Tusken said it was important to listen to parents, who are putting the “blood, sweat and tears” into raising their children.

“Some of the things that are coming up with critical race theory or certain sorts of sex education, some families can feel like its undermining their parenting, it’s not partnering with their parenting,” Tusken said.

The school board vacancy was created after Andy Willett moved out of the district in August 2020. He didn’t realize he was no longer qualified to serve on the board until late-April, well past the 60 days allowed under state law for the school board to appoint a replacement.

Although the school board initially thought it would be able to select a new member, the responsibility to fill the seat fell to Henry’s office. Eleven applications were requested from Henry’s office but only six were returned by the deadline.

People interested in providing feedback to Henry’s office can email superintendentofschools@gallatin.mt.gov.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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