Great Falls Public Schools trustees race draws 12 candidates for 4 seats on May ballot

Lisa R. Parker

Election Day has been set for May 3 for candidates vying for seats on the Great Falls Public Schools Board of Trustees.

Mail-in ballots have been sent out to Great Falls residents and need to be delivered before the May 3 deadline to Cascade County Election Office at 325 2nd Avenue North Great Falls, MT 59401.

Four seats are up for election with 12 candidates appearing on the ballot. Three seats that represent both elementary and secondary districts on the board carry three-year terms, while the fourth seat up to a vote is for one year to fill out the remainder of Jan Cahill’s term.

The Tribune asked all school board candidates to complete a questionnaire for the upcoming election. The following are their responses, some were lightly edited with permission for length and clarity.

Only eight responded to the Tribune’s request for a Q&A.

Brian Cayko

Brian Cayko

Brian Cayko

Age: 42

Education: Doctoral Student in Education Leadership, MBA Health Care Administration, BS Biology, AAS in Respiratory Therapy

Occupation: Clinical Assistant Professor of Respiratory Care

Why should you be elected to the school board?

I am running for the school board because I am deeply concerned about the shockingly poor academic performance of the Great Falls Public School system.

According to the Every Student Succeeds Act report card which can be found on the school district website, only 46% of the students that will graduate this spring from the public high schools in Great Falls are considered ready for either college or career. This is a failure to educate. The ESSA report card also shows that a shocking 73% of the high school students in Great Falls are less than proficient in math, science comes in even worse at 78%, and reading is 62% NOT proficient. These are young people on the threshold of adulthood, yet stunningly the majority are not considered proficient in the three most basic academic subjects, math, science, and reading.

This is a failure of our public school districts mission & this trend must be reversed.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

This relationship begins by meeting the community where they are. The parents & community members are mostly two working parent or single parent families, at the end of the day their concerns are for making ends meet & trusting the school system with their kids is one way that helps them do this. However, many parents are now upset with what the district is doing with their kids & they have lost this trust. The last place these busy parents are likely to look for this relationship with the school board is on the district website. The board & administrators need to be visible & meet parents where it is convenient. As is, the board & district information is all readily available, it just isn’t showing up in the “daily streams” of most taxpayers & we can do better.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing Great Falls Public Schools?

1. Academic Proficiency is unacceptably low, as is career & college readiness, yet graduation rates continue to climb. Graduating unprepared & inproficient students sets up the community & society as a whole for long term decline.

2. Teacher support, retention, & recruitment

3. While academic performance has been allowed to fall, parents have been reporting increased concerns with a slide into a woke agenda of social emotional learning, social grade promotion, social justice, sexualization, identity politics, and mandates. The priorities of the school system seem to be misdirected and off mission. We must shift our focus back to academic achievement, classroom attendance, and fulfilling the requirements of a class or course to achieve advancement.

Mark Finnicum

Why should you be elected to the school board?

In the 3 years of being on the budget and insurance committees, makes me very knowledgeable about the financial dealings with the district. My extensive experience makes me a valuable asset to the board. I am a financial advisor for the last 22 years. I have been very passionate about our children’s learning and future opportunities, sense both of my kids have been educated in GFPS and my grandchildren are in the same track.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

Parents need to be more involved in their child’s learning from day one. Having children ready to learn is paramount. Parents and grandparents who volunteer and help with schools, PTA, classroom help, attending board meetings and generally being involved, helps everyone. Being supportive to our teachers knowledge makes us a better community. Community members and taxpayers who are plugged in, make communication easier.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing Great Falls Public Schools?I see the overall communication level as an opportunity to improve. From the classroom, normal notices, to the whole school, and to the big district wide , we can do better. This last 2 years with so many pivotal changes have shown this. The district has the burden of accuracy and privacy. Meaning the communications will probably never be quick enough, but we can do better. Overall budgeting and setting priorities are also a challenge.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I consider myself to be a good listener, rational thinker, and positive person who asks a lot of questions. When I have enough information to make a decision, I do, and when the information leads me to change, I do.

I am also a board member on the state school board. This allows me me to make a positive impact on a bigger scale. That board is a very valuable asset to all districts in MT. Having more resources to be able to bring bills to the state legislature to effect improvement state wide.

I have been a conservative and Christian my whole life. I volunteer my leadership skills and time to many GF organizations. Red Cross lifetime donor, US Air Force veteran, Rotary past president and past Governor for the state, toastmasters club president, chamber volunteer and Military affairs committee member, GF community Ice Foundation Vice President, but my greatest title has been grandpa!

I would appreciate your support and your vote in May !

Gordon Johnson

Occupation: Music Director Emeritus, Great Falls Symphony

Why should you be elected to the school board?

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, th
e 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.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

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.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing Great Falls Public Schools?

We are coming out of two years of a worldwide 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.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

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

My wife and I moved to Montana in September 2012 as an adventure while our youngest child/daughter was attending Montana Wilderness School of the Bible.

Our oldest child/son is married and living with his wife and two of our grand-daughters in Canada. Our middle child/daughter is married and living with her husband and our three other grand-daughters in Pennsylvania. Our youngest daughter is now also living in Pennsylvania.

One week or so after we arrived, as I was turning off 10th Ave S onto 13th Street S, the thought hit me so clearly, “For the first time in my life, I am HOME!” Now I say that I was born in Pennsylvania, but I am from Montana!

Age: 60

Education: BS in Computer Science

Occupation: Business Systems Manager

Why should you be elected to the school board?

Our District’s Mission Statement is “We successfully educate students to navigate their futures”.

I have been the beneficiary of a full schooling experience from public to private to vocational technical training: all while in high school.

I want to ensure that our students have the fullest experience of building all the knowledge they will need to navigate their future. I received advice from a caring librarian who saw an aptitude that I did not know I had.

I am focused on making sure our schools honor their core role in our community: to educate our children with facts so they can move forward in their lives.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

The taxpayers have open access to the trustees through multiple avenues: phone, e-mail and during School Board meetings.

There is a level of responsibility on the taxpayers side as well. There are many ways taxpayers can be involved in the education process. I know one gentleman who, after retiring from his career, chose to volunteer at one of our schools. That led to an employment opportunity.

There is also the opportunity for the taxpayers to come to school board meetings to observe and to provide input: both of which are greatly appreciated and sought.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing Great Falls Public Schools?

Last year, the Great Falls Public School District reported to the U.S. Department of Education that only 46% of our graduating class was ready for college or career. That means that 54% of our graduates were not educated to navigate their future. This is a major failure.

We also have the problem of social promotion. We are teaching our students that they do not need to apply themselves to their studies in order to get to the next grade and on to graduation. This results in them not being ready to navigate the world outside of school.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We need to protect the innocence of our children by not exposing them over sexualization at an early age. We need to protect our children from curriculum that contain blatant lies such as Critical Race Theory and 1619 Project. We need to maintain local control over our education.

Michael Nagel

Age: 37

Education: MSN Nursing Leadership and Administration

Occupation: U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

Why should you be elected to the school board?

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. 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.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

In order to facilitate a relationship between taxpayers and the school board is by transparency. The school board should always be a safe space for parents to voice their concerns. In this day and age of technology, an online forum, or open platform might be a great way to allow the public to hear about the GFPS operations. There should never be secrets to things the taxpayers are paying for.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing Great Falls Public Schools?

Children’s Safety, Teacher retention, and Curriculum. The reason I am running is because I’m concerned for the
future of the next generation. Teachers are very influential to the youth in which they educate so I feel it’s crucial to implement developmentally appropriate materials to be taught for each grade. Lastly, the curriculum is what the teachers are given and expected to teach. If the curriculum teaches something that does not have a factual historical basis or American values our next generation will make the same mistakes that could have been prevented by learning our nation’s history. If we erase history then we are bound to repeat it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I appreciate your consideration and humbly ask for your vote this May for the position of GFPS School Board Trustee.

Nathan Reiff

Nathan Reiff

Nathan Reiff

Age: 45

Education: MS in Organizational Management and BA in Religion/Philosophy

Occupation: Commercial Lender

Why should you be elected to the school board?

Schools, and an educated community, are an essential part of a vibrant community. I want to continue increasing 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 have also seen how essential it is to have an educated workforce. I would like the opportunity to give back to the school district by serving as a trustee.

As a board member, these 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 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 firsthand how important quality schools are to our business community.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

As a trustee, I will listen to the community and engage as many stakeholders as possible. I want to 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. I will do this by continuing to speak with parents, teachers, and staff. My phone number and email are available to the public. I will work with organizations like KEY to make sure that information is getting out to the public.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing 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 need to focus on recovering the gap created by the pandemic to ensure we are helping students reach and meet their educational goals.

Another issue is graduation and proficiency rates in our schools. We have taken several positive steps toward improving our performance. 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 be career and college ready. We adopted a new English curriculum to help us overcome some of the learning loss, while providing additional challenges for those who continue to excel. We will start to see improvements from these programs as they are more fully implemented.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

As a trustee, over the next 3 years, I would like to help 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 a student’s commitment to school, as well as, connect them to possible future jobs and mentors.

Amie Thompson

Age: 47

Education: Bachelors in journalism and history from the University of Montana, masters in organizational leadership from Gonzaga (will finish in August 2022).

Occupation: Communications Coordinator at NorthWestern Energy.

Why should you be elected to the school board?

I have been volunteering in classrooms and for Great Falls Public Schools for 16 years, and served on PTA boards for nine years. My passion for public education stems from my years volunteering in classrooms and believing that every child deserves an opportunity to learn. I know the school district well and understand our struggles and successes. I’m an advocate for student success, teacher support and community partnerships and am an out-of-the-box thinker willing to help the schools continue to partner with the community to find win-win pathways for our students to succeed while also meeting workforce needs.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

The school board is the liaison between the community and the district, so I will listen to any concerns as everyone should be heard. I would encourage anyone with a concern to speak at the next school board meeting.

I appreciate how fiscally responsible the district is. For years now, the district has held a series of public town hall meetings on the budget. I think it has been a great way to show transparency in how our schools spend money.

I will continue to be easy to find, as I will support students at events, concerts and games.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing Great Falls Public Schools?

1. Teachers are our most valuable asset, and we need to retain them by addressing burnout while also competitively recruiting and retaining top talent. I see the public education system as the foundation to our city’s growth, and having top teachers is key to a strong district.

2. We need to continue to bridge the learning ga
p caused by the pandemic by meeting students where they are. The underlying needs of each student, including mental health issues and food insecurity, must be met before they are able to achieve their learning goals.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

My husband, Scott, and I have two daughters, Lizzie and Hallie, who graduated from the district and are thriving in college because of the education they received from the outstanding schools in Great Falls.

When I volunteered in my daughters’ classrooms, I saw the incredibly hard work teachers do to reach both ends of the spectrum, and I know we need to continue working together for even better student success.

Teachers are our superheroes, and I will support them as they shape the next generation of leaders.

Learn more about me on social media at Amie Thompson for School Trustee.

Paige Turoski

Paige Turoski

Paige Turoski

Turoski was a candidate for Great Falls City Commission in 2021.

Age: 30

Education: Bachelors of Science in Mathematics, the University of Great Falls

Occupation: Stay-at-Home-Mom

Why should you be elected to the school board?

I should be elected to the Great Falls School Board because there is a dearth of sensible and reliable representation on the current board, something recognized by parents all over the Great Falls area. I will be that representation. The education of our children must always come first. As trustee, I will work with parents, teachers, and administrators to keep the focus on our children and to make education in Great Falls great again.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

A working relationship between the school board and taxpayers is something I am very interested in facilitating because it is taxpayer dollars that contribute to the funding of the school board when a levy is passed. A levy may be brought to the public on a ballot for the voters to decide, or via use of a permissive levy, where the school board may vote to pass a levy to make a balanced budget for a given year. Taxpayers prefer to be able to vote for a levy, rather than have the decision made for them. Most people want to have a say in what happens with their finances. As trustee, I would advocate for the use of the ballot, rather than a permissive levy, and only when all other options have been exhausted.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing Great Falls Public Schools?

One of the biggest issues facing our school district is the failing proficiency rates of our students. Our high schools boast an 80% graduation rate, yet they rank in the bottom 50% for all Montana high schools. One reason is because less than 50% of the students are proficient in basic education. This means that over half of the students cannot read, write, or do math at their grade level. It’s worrying to think the schools might be sending graduates into the world underprepared and undereducated.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

My final thoughts are on trade schools. One statistic that is always discussed is the percentage of graduates that go to college but what about our graduates who are going into a trade? Or going into the workforce? College is wonderful for those who want to go but our future plumbers, electricians, welders, and dry-wallers are just as important. It is time we prepare our students for life after high school, regardless of what path they take.

Russell R. Herring

Age: Timeless

Education: BS Zoology/Physiology, UWyo; MAS Aeronautical safety and space studies, Embry-Riddle; BSN U of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, DNP MSU

Occupation: Family nurse practitioner

Why should you be elected to the school board?

I’m passionate about education. I’ve personally benefited greatly from the educational opportunities upon which I’ve stumbled through my life. My wife is an instructor in the district, and I have two sons who are students in the district. Students and staff are my top priority, should I be chosen by the voters of Great Falls to serve on the board of trustees.

How do you plan on facilitating the relationship between the school board and taxpayers?

Except for rare instances, generally associated with personnel actions, community members are invited to trustee meetings. The district budget is a moving target, but I would remind everyone that the base budget is available at The budget moves, changes and evolves, continually, but the base budget is available at the district website, and amendments/modifications are enacted in open trustee sessions. I invite everyone to attend these meetings if they are interested. I am available for civil discourse with the Great Falls voters at most hours of the day, night, or weekends.

What do you feel are the biggest issues or challenges facing Great Falls Public Schools?

Global educational systems have been behind schedule since the COVID pandemic, and ours are no different. We must get students back to grade level, and we must improve our graduation rates. I’m from a very small school, with graduation rates close to 100% – measured in decades. I know that goal is quite lofty in a school district with more students than total residents from the county in which I grew up, but I think that should be the goal. There is a saying about shooting for the stars and hitting the moon, which I think could apply here. We need to check in with students who have dropped out, or are at risk of, and see how these students feel the district could have done better.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

This will be the second time I’ve run for GFPS school trustee. I believe in public service, education, students, instructors, and staff. I believe a well-organized, well thought-out school curriculum can prepare students for college, trade/tech school or to enter the workforce. I believe students need to experience a diverse curriculum, spread across humanities and STEM. I believe education must be challenging, but also rewarding, and that education should be presented to students in a manner which provides them with palpable goals, destinations, and rewards, should we expect them to excel, and to do so all the way through high school graduation.

This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Election 2022: Great Falls Public Schools Board of Trustees race

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