3 year GFPS School Board Trustee Q&A

GFPS School Board Elections will be held on May 3rd at the fairgrounds and voting will be completed by 8:00pm.  Mailed ballots will be going out on April 13th.  If you don’t receive a ballot you can get one at the cascade county elections office. Mailed ballots should be sent in 4 days prior to the election to ensure your vote.

As a reminder, a school board trustee is responsible for adopting and enforcing all policies related to management of Great Falls Public Schools. Their ultimate purpose is to ensure the policies and practices of the district support all students, individually and collectively, to have appropriate opportunities to achieve academic success.

This is a voluntary position. None of the trustees are compensated. Great Falls Public Schools has seven trustees. Learn more here: https://www.gfps.k12.mt.us/domain/130

There are seven community members running for the three-year term open school board trustee position. There are three open positions for this election. The candidates are (in alpha order by last name) as they will show up on your ballot:

Brian Cayko

  1. Please describe your experiences and connection to Great Falls Public Schools

I am a lifelong Montana resident and a Great Falls resident since 2002. I have had kids in GFPS from K-12 since 2006 some who have been honors and others that have needed extra help and individual education plans.

As a professor of Respiratory Care and Licensed Respiratory Therapist I have worked with many teachers in the system for HOSA, Health Occupations Prep courses, STEM fairs, Middle and High School College tours, and similar organizations.

2. What do you see as the most challenging issue facing Great Falls Public Schools at this time?

Our greatest challenge is the unacceptably low proficiency levels in math, science, & reading, and college & career readiness. It is a clear failure of the stated GFPS mission.

What successes do you see in the programs and teaching delivered through Great Falls Public Schools?

Many students are excelling and doing great things. HOSA students from CMR recently took 1st place in the statewide HOSA Bowl in Billings. GFH teams also fared well. Young business professionals from our district have qualified for state and national competitions. Music, Art, Science and other STEM related areas as well as athletics all have exceptional highlights. However, this is the top echelon of our students. It is right for them to receive highlight and accolade. However, we cannot let this overshadow the failure of our system to educate the majority of our students.

3.What do you see as the three most important things to achieve by serving as a GFPS Board Trustee?

  • Increased proficiency in math, science, & reading, and college & career readiness.
  • Improving parent recognition and participation in the classroom and the boardroom. Making sure parents know the board hears their concerns and then being transparent and accountable in our responses.
  • Supporting teachers in the classroom regarding academic and behavioral issues. Focusing on retention and recruitment strategies to ensure high quality teachers are positioned to teach our kids.

4. What aspect of public-school funding do you think is the most in need of change?

Public school funding is pretty much set by Montana Law so there is not a whole lot that the board has direct control over. How that money is spent does fall within board purview and a fiscally conservative approach is prudent. Where the board does affect funding is in levy and local tax options. Currently, there has been a lot of discussion regarding federal dollars, especially relief dollars, in our schools. The important point with federal money, is that it is not part of the normal and regular ongoing funding measures of the district and therefore cannot be relied upon for any type of ongoing expenses. There has also been significant discussion regarding the connection of federal funds with contingencies to particular health mandates.

As a Trustee, how would you advocate for that change?

Accepting money in return for any type of required policy or mandate is unethical. A child’s health is the responsibility of their parents. To remove that choice and control a situation by making decisions based not on factual evidence but by contingent money is wrong.

5. What do you want the community to know about you, your qualifications, and your interest in serving as a trustee of GFPS?

As a lifelong Montanan, I think it’s essential that we reverse the decline of academic achievement that the ESSA numbers show. My kids go to school here, my family and I live, work, and go to church here. I am a licensed Respiratory Therapist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Respiratory Care for Boise State University, working remotely from my home here in Great Falls, with students all across the nation. I understand the value of education.

As parents and community members, we must remember the mission of our school system is to “successfully educate students to navigate their futures.” If elected, I pledge I will not forget that mission.

Mark Finnicum

  1. Please describe your experiences and connection to Great Falls Public Schools.

In the last 22 years, we have had our two children educated successfully in the GFPS.   Seeing them become super citizens, makes us proud.  We have 2 grand kids that are in that track now. We care about what happens in our district and with the children. 

2. What do you see as the most challenging issue facing Great Falls Public Schools at this time? What successes do you see in the programs and teaching delivered through Great Falls Public Schools?

 I see the overall communication as our best area that we can improve.  From the day to day school level information to the big district wide events and or the issues.   I hear this from parents and the administration is working on it.  You don’t have to look very far to see the overwhelming success that our students are achieving. From the massive amounts of dual credits earned, to the excitement of our sports teams statewide, BPA, STEM, DECA, HOSA, skills USA,  Key club, MIOSM, Music, theater, purple up, National Merit Finalists, Art, National Honors Society, Proms.  The lists go on and on.  Our teachers are state and national recognized.  SO much good happens daily in our district. 

3. What do you see as the three most important things to achieve by serving as a GFPS Board Trustee?

  • Being the advocate for our children. 
  • Serving as resource for our parents. 
  • Having a say in how the policies and procedures in the district happens.  Being a part of the budget process and the financial success of the district. 

4. What aspect of public school funding do you think is the most in need of change? As a Trustee, how would you advocate for that change?

The laws for public school funding is too complicated. After 3 years of being a part of that I have become proficient at it.  I can and do explain that to many folks though out the year. The budget process is a year round thing. Once you see the wizard, Brian Patrick, explain at the 30,000 foot level, down to weeds, it make sense, but still too complex.  I am a part of the explanation process already. 

5. What do you want the community to know about you, your qualifications, and your interest in serving as a trustee of GFPS?

I have been a leader in many avenues in Great Falls. Toastmaster President, Rotary past President and state district governor, Ice Foundation Vice President.  I volunteer at many activities  from United Way, Military Affairs committee, chamber of commerce, Red Cross life donor (12 gallons of whole blood and 150 platelets) to name a few.  I consider myself to be a rational thinker, budgeter, numbers cruncher and generally a positive person.  I have been a financial advisor for the past 22 years here in Great Falls.  I like to listen and ask questions, then ask more deeper questions to the right people to be able to make an informed decision, then make that decision. When the information changes, I can as well.  I am also on the State of Montana School board.  Having a much greater ability to make a positive impact on a bigger scale.  I look forward to serving another 3 years as your trustee and I would appreciate your vote.  

Gordon Johnson

  1. Please describe your experiences and connection to Great Falls Public Schools.

I am coming to the end of a three-year term as a GFPS Board Trustee.  During the time I have been on the Board I have served on the Policy Committee, Safe, Healthy and Secure Schools Committee, the Calendar Committee and the Transportation Committee.  I am currently Vice-Chair of the Board.  I have attended the Montana Council for Educational Leadership for each of the past three years. My wife, who will retire at the end of this year has taught orchestra for 25 years in the GFPS system and our two boys, Max and Alex, attended Sunnyside (where I was part of the Parent Participation Program), East and GFHS. I served as Music Director of the Great Falls Symphony for 35 years and worked closely with GFPS administration in developing live matinee performances for youth.

  1. What do you see as the most challenging issue facing Great Falls Public Schools at this time? What successes do you see in the programs and teaching delivered through Great Falls Public Schools?

We are coming out of two years of a world-wide pandemic.  The GFPS has worked arduously to keep our kids and teachers safe while providing instruction remotely.  The outcome, however, has been a loss in face-to-face instruction.  There will need to be concerted remediation in order to enable students to gain erudition lost during the time of shut down and remote instruction.  This is an immediate challenge that needs to address. Also, the GFPS needs to be aggressive in finding, hiring and retaining talented teaching staff.  Doing so has been made more difficult due to challenging teaching conditions and low pay.

Challenges and opportunities abound! Even though COVID has been devastating, there has been relief in the form of ESSER money.  This funding has enabled the schools to replace antiquated HVAC systems, engage school nurses in buildings, distribute sanitation supplies, install safety equipment, the acquisition of Chrome Books, playground improvement and much, much more.

There have many, many successes.  All due to the commitment and involvement of a remarkable team of administrators and teachers.  Just to list a few, the High School House, the development of a new ELA curriculum, security cameras at each school, new playgrounds (Meadowlark and Longfellow), the Career and College Readiness Program Enrollment Program, the ROTC program, the alternative high school (PGEA) program, the McKinney-Vento Services to identify homeless students, the GFPS Foundation the list goes on and on.  We need to celebrate our accomplishments!

  1. What do you see as the three most important things to achieve by serving as a GFPS Board Trustee?

The Board’s main purpose is to provide governance over the District to ensure that students have ample opportunity to achieve their individual and collective learning needs.

  • This requires a trustee serving as an emissary for the GFPS: being present at community events, listening to citizens, spreading the good word of the tremendous service the GFPS provides to our community.
  • To be informed.  An effective Board member needs to set aside an ample amount of time for reading.  There is an abundance of information that comes from the Montana School Board Association that guides policy and enables us to implement the most current legislation, through policy, that has come out of Helena. The MTSBA “Thursday Thinktanks” (via Zoom) provide invaluable updates on a weekly basis.
  • Educating our community that we are obligated to upgrade our outdated school buildings.  In many cases class sizes are too large, older buildings are not set up for the level of technology required for today’s learning and the buildings are often too small.  Also, we should project into the future and anticipate what new building needs may be in our future.
  1. What aspect of public school funding do you think is the most in need of change? As a Trustee, how would you advocate for that change?

This might be the most daunting question.  Montana citizens must be emissaries for education to those elected to the state legislature.  We have delegates in the form of the Montana School Board Association working for us in that capacity.  There is a current interest in diverting school funding away from public education to accommodate private schools.  Those of us who have an interest in quality education need to be vigilant in protecting these funds for public education.  We may need to defend from current attempts to politicize education in a manner that may not be consistent with the District’s mission and curriculum.  Again, communication with our elected officials is key, whether it is in the form of letter writing or a personal conversation.

Also, the public needs to be brought into awareness of the value of public education in our communities and in our society.  The work that KEY has been doing is of enormous value in promoting this message.  Our citizens need to be committed to providing the necessary funding by supporting levies when necessary.

  1. What do you want the community to know about you, your qualifications, and your interest in serving as a trustee of GFPS?

Many people know me through my years with the Great Falls Symphony.  I have always been a strong advocate for Great Falls and have served the community in several capacities.  I held the Chair position with the Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Committee, have served on the City of Great Falls Mansfield Theater Foundation Committee, the City Park and Recreation Foundation Committee.  I was the founder and Conductor of the Great Falls Youth Orchestra for 20 years (a program designed to enhance and build upon the teaching by our GFPS music teachers).

This year I have arranged, through building principals, visits to each of our schools.  Each principal gave me a guided tour of the school and told me what their needs were and the visions they held for the future. I am, and have always been, a fervent believer in the value educations plays in one’s life.

Rodney Meyers

1. Please describe your experiences and connection to Great Falls Public Schools.

I have been attending the GFPS Board meetings for almost one year missing only two. I have also been editing the policy updates and provide needed changes to the district

2. What do you see as the most challenging issue facing Great Falls Public Schools at this time?

I think our number one critical issue is proficiency. Because of that issue, 54% of the graduating students last year were not ready for college or career as reported to the U.S. Dept. of Education on the ESSA report. Because of that issue, in 2020, in our high schools 67% of our students are below proficiency in math; 61% in science; and 58% in reading. Educating is our number one priority and what we are supposed to be expert at. We need to get back to our core competency.

3. What successes do you see in the programs and teaching delivered through Great Falls Public Schools?

We do a fantastic job at our secondary priorities: sports, drama, music, science fairs, etc.

4. What do you see as the three most important things to achieve by serving as a GFPS Board Trustee?

I see my three most important things as:
1. Getting our focus back on education
2. Ensuring that our policies are in line with our community interests
3. Ensuring that our curriculum is in line with our community.

5. What aspect of public school funding do you think is the most in need of change? As a Trustee, how would you advocate for that change?

We need to review the budget to see whether there are funds being spent needlessly and, if so, eliminate them.

6. What do you want the community to know about you, your qualifications, and your interest in serving as a trustee of GFPS?

I am dedicated to Great Falls and to our students.
Our national education system has dropped from number one in 1999 to 18th in 2009. We are now the Lowest among the industrialized nations. We need to get focused back on our
core function. We need to make sure our students are the best in the nation.

Michael Nagel

  1. Please describe your experiences and connection to Great Falls Public Schools.

My name is Michael Nagel and I am running for the Great Falls Public School Board. I have Montana roots for several generations and looking forward to several more to come. I have been married to Kendal my wife for 10 years. Kendal who is GFPS School Registered Nurse at North Middle School, and also have three children all in the GFPS district.

  1. What do you see as the most challenging issue facing Great Falls Public Schools at this time? What successes do you see in the programs and teaching delivered through Great Falls Public Schools?

I am running for the GFPS School Board to ensure there is a well-balanced and conventional approach to our children’s education. As a father of 3 in the GFPS school system I am directly impacted by the education being provided to our youth. It has been said politics are downstream of culture, so I would like to take part in cultivating a healthy, accepting culture in our schools by overseeing fact-based curriculum representing wholesome, American family values.

  1. What do you see as the three most important things to achieve by serving as a GFPS Board Trustee?
  • Healthy accepting culture
  • Fact-based Curriculum
  • Wholesome American family values
  1. What aspect of public school funding do you think is the most in need of change? As a Trustee, how would you advocate for that change?

Teachers’ wages need to be that of an educator and increased. These teachers are directly influencing our children and have such great value. With Low wages they are not associated enough for the great value they possess.

  1. What do you want the community to know about you, your qualifications, and your interest in serving as a trustee of GFPS?

I have Montana roots for several generations and looking forward to several more to come. I have been married to Kendal my wife for 10 years. Kendal is GFPS School Registered Nurse at North Middle School, and we have 3 children all in the GFPS district. We are blessed to live in the state of Montana and enjoy it thoroughly. 

I work for the Veterans Affairs as a Registered Nurse here in Great Falls and am also a Veteran working at the Montana Air National Guard for past 19 years. I enjoy educating my children about the outdoors and try to maximize outdoor activities all year long. It is important for my wife and I to be a positive influence on our community. We love America, and the freedoms that living here allows us to experience. 

Nathan Reiff

  1. Please describe your experiences and connection to Great Falls Public Schools.

My first connection to the schools is having a daughter in the district. She is a senior this year and has benefitted from the dedication of teachers, staff, and administration.  This dedication could not have been more evident than in this past year as we went through the ups and downs of adjusting to the multiple surges in the pandemic.  She has had great educational experiences and opportunities to participate in several extracurricular activities.

As a board member, over the past 9 months, I have had the opportunity to work with the cabinet, community and other board members. I have observed their dedication and the energy and focus they bring to every problem and opportunity. I have also learned how I can best contribute to the school system and some opportunities to increase our school success.

As a member, and president, of the Great Falls symphony board, I have seen the many talented students who participate in our musical programs. The school music programs have made our symphony better. And as a commercial loan officer and former business coach, I have seen and heard first hand how important quality schools are to our business community. 

  1. What do you see as the most challenging issue facing Great Falls Public Schools at this time? What successes do you see in the programs and teaching delivered through Great Falls Public Schools?

I believe most community members value education and our schools, but many are not aware of the lack of funding and the needs of the school district.  The district has had to cut staff and programs.  The administration, along with KEY and other community members and businesses, have done a good job educating the public about these problems, and we need to continue to do this, especially in years (like this one) when the district is not asking for additional funding. Funding needs to be about engagement and connecting the value of the schools to the community. This is especially true as we continue to see the lingering effects of the pandemic. The previous years have been challenging for teachers, students, staff, administration, and parents. We will need to continue to focus on recovering the gap created by the pandemic to ensure we are helping students to reach and meet their educational goals.

There have been a number of successes in programs and education. We have continued to build our apprenticeship programs and are poised to do even more with the continued development of our Career and Technical Education departments. We have expanded our outreach to homeless students and their families. This is essential as we work to keep them in school and ready to graduate and to be career and college ready. We adopted a new English curriculum that should help us overcome some of the learning loss, while providing additional challenges for those who continue to excel.

  1. What do you see as the three most important things to achieve by serving as a GFPS Board Trustee?
  • As a trustee, over the next 3 years, I would like to help to strengthen and expand our connection with the business community. We have programs in place for some internships. It would be great to expand this and make it more robust and universal. Many students don’t see the value of school. Connecting school to career can help to bolster student’s commitment to school, as well as connect them to possible future jobs and mentors.
  • As a trustee, I will listen to the community to better engage as many stakeholders as possible.  I want to help facilitate open dialogue between the board, district, and the community. There are so many valuable perspectives from parents, business owners, and students that can make our schools stronger and more cohesive.
  • As the board determines how to spend the additional federal monies received due to the pandemic, it is important that these one-time funds are used in a manner that can provide long-term benefits. Managing these assets effectively will provide for lasting improvements. As we strategize, we must also include planning for the future and how to navigate the budget shortfalls when this money runs out.
  1. What aspect of public school funding do you think is the most in need of change?

The state should provide greater funding to the districts. This would provide more equal funding to schools and make schooling more equal between communities.  The need for school districts to fund the balance of their budget through levies means that our schools can end up chronically underfunded.  This also creates uncertainty in the budgeting process.

5.What do you want the community to know about you and your interest in serving as a trustee of GFPS?

Schools, and an educated community, are an essential part of a vibrant community. I want to be a part of continuing to increase the strength of our educational system. That means working with teachers and administrators to understand their aspirations, concerns, and needs. I have benefited from the education my daughter has received. I also have seen how essential it is to have educated individuals for businesses. I would like the opportunity to give back to the school district by serving as a trustee.

Paige Turoski

  1. Please describe your experiences and connection to Great Falls Public Schools.

As the child of a military family I had the pleasure of attending Valley View Elementary for the second grade. Also, my husband’s family has been employed by the GFPS system for a large portion of his life.

  1. What do you see as the most challenging issue facing Great Falls Public Schools  at this time? What successes do you see in the programs and teaching delivered  through Great Falls Public Schools?

Politics in education is the most challenging issue facing the Great Falls Public Schools. The time spent debating politically driven specialty curriculum would be better spent focusing on how to increase district proficiency rates in basic education: reading, writing, and math. Both Great Falls High School and CMR High School rank in the bottom 50% of all high schools in Montana. They also both rank in the bottom 50% of all Montana high schools for math proficiency, as well as reading/language arts proficiency. However, both schools rank in the top 50% for graduation rates. Consistent graduation rates are wonderful but if the graduates are not grade-level proficient then they are being sent into the world underprepared, for higher education or the workforce. 

Happy kids are one of the biggest successes I see in the programs and teaching in the Great Falls Public Schools. The last board meeting had a few updates from student representatives from each of the high schools in town. These kids are involved in their schools and communities. This would not happen if it weren’t for teachers who truly care about their students, who can spark that excitement of learning, we all remember having teachers like that. The same board meeting I previously mentioned also got an update from a science teacher at North Middle School, accompanied by her Science Bowl team. It was obvious to everyone how much she cared about her students, it was more than just a job to her. 

  1. What do you see as the three most important things to achieve by serving as a  GFPS Board Trustee?

As a trustee, the first and most important thing is to educate our children in reading, writing, and math. I would seek a back to basics approach to increase proficiency rates and make education in Great Falls great again. The second most important thing is responsible budgeting. Should I be elected, I would seek a practical approach to the use of the federal relief funds distributed during the pandemic, prioritizing safe building for our students and staff to learn and teach in. The third thing I would seek to achieve as a trustee is a combined effort between parents, the school board, teachers, and administrators, putting differences aside to focus on the common goal of educating our children.

  1. What aspect of public school funding do you think is the most in need of change?  As a Trustee, how would you advocate for that change?

The aspect of public school funding in need of the most change is the permissive levy. Any money that needs to come from a levy should always be put on the ballot for voters to decide. Voters should be informed of how much is needed to balance the budget as written, as well as what cuts would have to be made should the levy not pass. This ensures voters will be able to make an informed decision. 

  1. What do you want the community to know about you, your qualifications, and  your interest in serving as a trustee of GFPS?

I first moved to Great Falls in 2013 to finish my undergraduate degree at The University of Great Falls (now the University of Providence). That is where I met my husband of 8 years, Kirk. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Mathematics and am now a stay-at-home Mom of our two wonderful boys, Anthony (6) and Killian (almost 4). Now that my boys are not so little and starting school themselves I am interested in getting involved locally and making a difference in my community. My roots in Great Falls run deep, my grandpa was stationed at Malmstrom in the late 80’s and retired in the early 90’s, living in the same house my entire life. My family used to come visit my grandparents every summer and now I am raising my kids here. I want to see Great Falls thrive in the way I know it can. If we want our city to see the important economic development that so many talk about, we have to have the schools to match. Competitively ranked schools are an enticing factor to families considering moving to a new community. If we want to attract a growing workforce to our city, we should aim to have the schools people are looking for.