With absentee ballots already headed out to voters and the May 3rd election just around the corner, it feels like the right time to remind people that this year’s vote for School Board is critically important. Helena is facing an election between candidates interested the entire education process against candidates who are running on anger and frustration rather than solutions.
Three of the candidates are angry. They’re angry about the curriculum; they’re angry at Dr. Messinger; they’re angry about programs to prevent bullying. To win your vote, though, Barbara Rush, Brittany Renshaw and Jeanne Sticht need to be more than upset; they need to be willing to work to find solutions and compromise for the sake of our students. Their public statements and press reports suggest that they just aren’t willing or able to do that.
If the fact that these three candidates have been endorsed, if not recruited, by Harris Himes and Tim Ravndal doesn’t concern you, their relentlessly negative campaign tactics and opposition to the Helena School District should.
The students of Helena deserve School Board members with vision for the 21st century, not with ideological blinders that make them incapable of seeing what students need to become successful.
Based on their campaigns, statements to the press, and presentations to Hometown Helena, Barbara Rush, Brittany Renshaw and Jeannie Sticht should not become the next School Board members.
- She taught in the District for decades, but did not receive the endorsement of the HEA nor any individual teachers.
- She is apparently opposed to every program the School District has ever implemented: Montana Behavioral Initiative, Free and Reduced Lunch for students in poverty, anti-bullying initiatives, field trips, mentoring and more.
- She believes that poverty and learning disabilities can be overcome with discipline and high expectations, but that support and additional resources somehow hurt children.
The second candidate, Brittany Renshaw, was one of the vocal opponents of the health curriculum, which seems to have motivated her decision to run, since it’s the only issue she ever discusses. Her own description of her qualifications for the office seems to suggest that voting for the incumbents would be a better choice:
I think a better question would be, “How am I any less qualified than the two incumbents?” As with any new position, there is a learning curve. I am not pretending to be the most knowledgeable person for the board.
The simple fact is that both incumbents are more qualified: a full term on the Board which has made them familiar with the Board’s procedures, professional lives that have prepared them for the intricacies of school law and finance, and experience as mothers of children in the Helena School system makes both incumbents better choices with broader experience. Mrs. Renshaw’s most touted qualification—that she is a MOM—hardly separates her from the incumbents, who have five children in the Helena School District right now, while she has none.
Mrs. Renshaw troublingly seems to think that the school board is a partisan election, telling the Independent Record that she should be chosen because she is a conservative:
Renshaw will be happy to offer a different perspective, because she says the board has not had enough diversity.
“Ninety percent of the votes are unanimous without much discussion,” she said. “I’m tired of the same, and as a mother it’s hard for me to understand some of their votes.”
Renshaw said there needs to be a more conservative representative on the board.
Mrs. Renshaw simply doesn’t have answers for the problems she has identified in the district. Having students clean their classrooms isn’t an answer for developing character, and handouts aren’t going to solve the dropout rate:
It will take the community to find a remedy, Renshaw said. One idea is to help parents learn how to talk to their children about what is happening at school by holding workshops or providing handouts.
Finally, it’s hard to overlook Mrs. Renshaw’s campaign strategy. She has aligned herself with Barbara Rush, cross-promoting her web site and campaign, and worse yet, actually endorsed an odious web site that made incredibly inappropriate comments about her opponents. That’s not the way a public official should act, and it’s not the way a mother should act.
Dr. Sticht’s support for local schools seems dependent on political considerations, not financial need. Less than a week before the election, he’s still telling the media that he hasn’t decided if he will be supporting the mill levy:
Sticht says he is unsure if he will support the mill levy, and has concerns over how taxpayer money is being spent by the board.
Voters deserve a candidate willing to tell the truth, and if Dr. Sticht doesn’t plan to vote for the levy, he should let us know. His unwillingness to publicly support a levy critical for school operations alone should disqualify him from consideration.
I’m also troubled by Dr. Sticht’s contention that fiscal responsibility and spending are critical issues, given his involvement in a frivolous lawsuit against the District and Board that is certainly wasting valuable resources. While the suit has not garnered much media attention, it’s worth reading for its shoddy legal reasoning and mudslinging. What Dr. Sticht and others can’t seem to realize is that the Board absolutely did listen to parents and community members, and then made a decision that some disagreed with. That’s how democracy works.
Dr. Sticht is also quite misinformed about the interaction between poverty and academic success. He told Hometown Helena repeatedly that he didn’t believe poverty was “a problem” in Helena because “we are one of the most affluent communities in the state.” As someone who teaches in a school that has over 40% of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch and knowing that there are six Title I schools in the District, it’s beyond troubling that Dr. Sticht doesn’t see the pervasive poverty that affects the lives of our young people; it’s dangerous.
Ideologically, he’s wrong about poverty, too, telling Hometown Helena that “poverty shouldn’t be an excuse” for academic failure and the dropout rate. No one is suggesting using poverty as an excuse, but helping students who grow up with less resources and even hunger in their homes is a critical component any program to reduce the dropout rate. Hungry students don’t learn. School Board members need to know that.
Finally, he’s also incredibly wrong about elective course offerings, telling the Independent Record:
Sticht says the number of electives offered should be evaluated; while they may provide a good way for students to relieve steam and introduce them to lifelong hobbies, it’s not necessarily where the focus should be.
There is no support—in research or experience—that suggests reducing student agency and interest will encourage high school completion. The opposite is true.
The Big Picture
Single issues are often the motivation for people to seek public office, but they make poor reasons to elect officials. The recent experience of Trevor Wilkerson’s short, unhappy tenure on the Board illustrates the danger of electing candidates who are more interested in a personal ideological agenda than on developing the best possible policy.
I believe in high standards for our students, teachers, and schools, but I cannot support any of the three candidates who are running for School Board under the guise of seeking increased oversight and academic achievement, because I simply don’t believe that is their real agenda. Instead, the three strident critics of the Helena School District and School Board seem to be running because they are angry, two because they are angry about how the health curriculum vote turned out and one who is angry about every decision made by the Helena School District in the past two decades, give or take.
Tomorrow: Why you should consider voting for Myhre, Prezeau, and Lovshin