By Paula Wilmot
When Lori Bonifay earned her college degree, she was living at the Rescue Mission with four of her five children.
She had traveled a rocky road, but all along she knew education would be the key to her success.
A cozy bedroom in the Cameron Family Center was her family’s home for the last three months of her classes in graphic design.
She felt lucky indeed to be there. After graduating with a two-year degree from Great Falls College MSU, she worked for local businesses but felt she wasn’t reaching her full potential. She started her own design business, and in December she starts a new job with a local company.
She calls her own business Voice of Hope Creative Designs, a name that expresses her faith, strength, and optimism.
Bonifay grew up in a family that valued education, and she believes education helped her find her own place.
Now she’s getting involved with schools in a different way because she knows education will help her children, too.
“School levies need to be passed. Cuts need to be stopped. We need to continue services for our kids,” she says.
Passing levies will support students and teachers, and she believes that will ultimately bring people to Great Falls, helping the city thrive.
She recalls meeting a couple from Texas who moved to Great Falls because of the schools. That was years ago when Great Falls Public Schools spent more to educate each student than most other big districts in the state.
Bonifay graduated from a small Class C high school in Shepherd, Montana, in 1997. She tried college right out of high school but lacked a goal and motivation. She thought she was wasting her time. She married young and began raising a family.
Coming to Great Falls from Billings in 2011 was a good move, she says.
“Great Falls is full of kind-hearted individuals. There’s a great sense of community here,” she says.
She plans to stay. Because of that, she has developed a passion to become more active in the community.
That means supporting school levies and encouraging others to do so. It’s vital, she says, to pass levies for the general fund and for the other needs of the district as well.
“Get involved” is her mantra. “Go to meetings and learn what you can.”
She went to a recent budget meeting. “That opened my eyes to why school district spokesmen seem to be always asking for money. Because they need it.”
She became aware of the district’s cash shortages when one of her sons went out for football. Fundraising was essential for participation. “It’s a stretch. But I see why fundraising is necessary,” she adds.
Bonifay is particularly concerned about the district’s needs at the middle- and high-school levels.
“Those students have a lot more pressures and face tough issues.
Sports and clubs are wonderful extra opportunities for students to stay involved in school too. But cuts to teachers mean they don’t have teachers to work with these activities.”
She’s excited about the new hub at Great Falls High School and the opportunities offered there.
A large cafeteria/gathering space leads to expanded shop areas for students who are more vocationally adept than academics.
“Culinary arts – who ever heard of culinary arts? We had home economics, but the culinary arts program caters to students’ interests and future fields of work,” she adds.
The improvements at GFHS are part of the $98 million bond issue approved by voters in 2016.
“The fact that the bond issue passed tells you a lot about what Great Falls residents want for their kids. Now it’s time to pass school levies.”
Over the last 12 years, over $10 million in budget cuts have required the district to cut more than 102 teachers. Budgeting decisions also meant cuts to educational enhancement programs for kids, biting into music, art, and athletic programs and hands-on learning opportunities.
The cuts that follow every school levy failure limit the teachers’ ability to teach, Bonifay says.
“If schools are limited, we limit what kids can do and how much they learn. Kids need opportunities to reach their potential.”
In order to stop the bleeding from staff cuts, class sizes were increased.
“My kids – and probably everyone’s kids – would benefit from smaller classes,” she adds.
“Large classes keep teachers from reaching all of the students all of the time. Pay raises are good, but we need more teachers.”
She’s also concerned about technology.
It’s an internet world, after all.
“The internet helps trim costs too, by eliminating some of the need to purchase and update textbooks. But what about the kids who don’t have internet access at home? It’s another budget issue.”
And nobody can argue against the need for school security, she adds.
Bonifay will continue to beat the drum for passing school levies.
To her, education is the key to success.
She explored a few fields until she found her niche when she took a class in introduction to graphic design in her mid-30s. She switched to graphic design in order to reach her ultimate goal of independence.
“I had lived on the system and wanted to get off assistance and be successful on my own.”
Through programs run by the Chamber of Commerce, she became involved in support of the school system. She attends school budget meetings and school board meetings. She shadowed a high school principal to see firsthand what administrators deal with every day.
Kids have more opportunities now, but they also have more problems.
Bonifay saw the toll teaching pressures took on her sister, a former Great Falls teacher. She thinks reducing class size is key to improving schools for students and teachers.
Everyone has a story. If you can make a difference by telling your story, it’s worth sharing it, Bonifay says.
It comes down to choices, and she says the choice is clear: Support our teachers. Support our schools. Support school levies.