Three school board races, three levies to be decided May 7

School board candidates in Park City, Absarokee, Columbus
Mikaela Koski
Thursday, May 2, 2019
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Three Stillwater County school districts have contested races for three-year school trustee positions: Park City, Absarokee, and Columbus.

The News contacted the candidates in these races with three prompts:

- Tell the voters about your background.

- What are your qualifications for serving on the school board?

- Why are you running for a position on the school board?

The following are their answers (asterisks denote incumbents):




“I was raised in Park City and graduated from Park City High School. I am married to Eric Lowell. My oldest son graduated from Park City and my daughter currently attends Park City Schools. They are both fifth-generation children who have attended school in Park City.”


“I have experience in business and in budgeting. I received my bachelor of science degree in Education from MSU-B. My husband and I have been ranchers/ farmers since he was 19, and with any business you need to be familiar with a budget.

“I have been very active in helping with the Awana Program at the Park City Baptist Church for 15 plus years.

“I enjoy teaching children and watching them grow into responsible adults.”


“The reason I am re-running for the school board is because education is one of the most important things our children need.

“I have always tried to enhance our education at Park City. I have supported several programs and activities that help our students get the foundation they need to become successful adults.

“The community is responsible for how high we set our standards in education. I feel that the highest standard of education for each child is a must. I feel that the community and the school need to work together to reach these standards. A school board member is that link, and that is why I have agreed to take on that challenge.”



“My wife Sarah and I moved to Park City in early 2007 when we bought a home. We chose Park City for a number of reasons – one was the school had a good reputation and we knew we planned to have children. We have two children: Audri is 9 and in fourth grade, and Kaden is 7 and in second grade.

“I graduated in 2005 from Montana State University-Bozeman with a degree in Agricultural Business Management and second major in Economics. Prior to attending MSU, I worked on a farm in Cut Bank from 1996-2000.

“I graduated from Cut Bank High School in 1996. As the son of a federal government employee, we moved numerous times. I attended nine different schools between kindergarten and graduating from high school.”


“I feel I am qualified to run for the board due to my education background and personality.

“I have a background in management, and I am someone that is willing to ask tough questions when needed and do not accept responses that do not answer the question being asked. Far too often I have sat in school board meetings and witnessed few questions being asked when the topic begged for more inquiry.”


“I am running for the school board for a number of reasons. The majority of the current board members do not have children in the elementary school. After having attended board meetings, I feel the board needs someone that has children that are in the elementary school to bring a different perspective to the board.

“It is my belief that due to the current makeup of the board, that some decisions have been made that make sense for the high school but would have adversely effected the elementary student body had they been implemented.

“It is also my opinion that the school board and the school administration need to be more transparent in their communication with the parents and general public in the district. Park City Schools are doing well, but they can do better.”




“My family history dates back to the late 1800s in Still-water County. I grew up on my parents’ ranch west of Absarokee and graduated from Absarokee High School in 1979. I received a bachelor of science in Elementary Education from MSU in 1983. I taught in Fort Smith, Col-strip, and Luther over a period of 30-plus years.

“My husband, Donald, and I raised two children during this time, with our daughter graduating valedictorian of Absarokee High School in 2010.

“I was chosen as the 2014 Montana Rural Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the National Rural Teacher of the Year. In 2016, I retired from teaching to ranch full-time with my husband.”


“I feel I have a unique perspective with over 30 years of teaching experiences in both large and small schools. No matter the size, good schools get parents involved, keep the focus on student learning and preparation for the future, and give teachers the opportunity for professional development; all the while working to be fiscally responsible.

“With my ranching background, I know how to manage a budget, keep costs down, and work hard to get a positive result.”


“I was appointed to the Absarokee School Board at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, and I’ve enjoyed my return to the education community. I am currently serving on the district’s curriculum committee where we are working to ensure teachers and students have the curriculum materials necessary to meet educational standards.

“I believe I bring a unique skill set with my experience as a teacher and business owner, and I would like to continue being a part of the Absarokee school district’s future.”



“I grew up on a ranch in Nye and I am a proud graduate of Absarokee High School (AHS). After graduating, I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where I received a bachelor of science in Agriculture. I married my high school sweetheart, also an AHS graduate, and we moved back to Montana and spent several years in Missoula and Miles City. During this time, I worked in the school systems as a substitute teacher and a paraprofessional in a preschool special education classroom.

“We moved to Alaska, where I was involved in running several non-profits. I was the state director of the Alaska March of Dimes and the executive director of FOCUS, Inc. At FOCUS, with a staff of 150, we supported over 300 individuals with disabilities.

“We then had the opportunity to start our own commercial painting business, which correlated nicely with also starting our family. We returned to the Stillwater Valley six years ago to raise our family in the community we grew up in.

“I have had the distinct pleasure to be very involved in the Absarokee School District since returning. I volunteer weekly in my daughter’s classes at the elementary. I serve on the Absarokee Vocational Advisory Board and for the past four years have been the event coordinator for the Quick Draw and Art Auction which benefits graduating AHS seniors in the form of scholarships. I have served on the board of the Absarokee PTA and am involved with the Stillwater Boosters. I assist the staff each winter in coordinating our Elementary School Ski Program.

“I love having the opportunity to be involved at our school and I see serving on the school board as an extension of this involvement. I have also served on the Absarokee Swimming Pool Association Board, Circle T Homeowner’s Association Board and FOCUS, Inc. Board in Alaska.

I believe it is important to be involved and give back to the community that we live in, and I have been fortunate to be able to do that. I am currently a stay-at-home mom which gives me the opportunity to be involved, while also helping to manage our property management business here in Montana and our two painting businesses in Alaska.”


“I have over 20 years of experience of either working directly with volunteer boards or serving on them. I understand the importance of working together for a common goal and in the responsibility that comes in being a steward of that vision.

“Thanks to both my professional and volunteer experience, I have had the opportunity to create and enforce policy and procedure at various levels. I have extensive budgetary knowledge and understand balance sheets, profit and loss and the importance of a fiscally sound budget. I appreciate working with an administration and the checks and balances that come from governing and working towards a successful outcome.

“I have been involved in nation-wide employment searches to find qualified personnel and have worked together with staff and board members to implement comprehensive review processes of top administrators. My husband and I have also been small business owners for over 12 years, which has made me incredibly resourceful, fiscally responsible and able to navigate the business world.

“I believe I have the necessary skills, experience and passion to add a great deal to the school board.”


“With three young children, I have a vested interest in their education; however, the main reason I am running for the school board is to be a voice and advocate for all children in the Absarokee School District.

“I feel education is the best gift we can give our children. I loved being an Absarokee Husky and I am proud my children are Huskies. I want to make certain that my children and future generations in the Absarokee School District have the opportunity for success and that pride in the Husky orange. I feel with my past experiences I can bring a skill set to the school board that will help in achieving this goal.

“If elected, I would serve the Absarokee School District with passion and dedication. I would continue being active within the school and I would strive to listen and engage with our teachers, administrators and community to make certain our students’ and employees’ best interests are met and at heart. I appreciate your consideration to serve as the next trustee of the Absarokee School District. Please go vote on May 7th, as there is a school mill levy that needs our support as well. Thank you.”




Smith holds a bachelor of arts in Business Administration from the University of Arizona, as well as a master’s degree in English Education from Arizona State.

He taught for 23 years in the Mesa, Ariz., school system, holding positions as a middle school teacher, elementary teacher, and elementary school librarian throughout the years.

In 1994, Smith moved to Montana and owned a book business for 10 years. He and his wife, Constance, taught local children theatre arts skills through a camp named “Cast of Characters” every summer for a decade. Smith has served as a substitute teacher in both Absarokee and Columbus.

He served as the children’s librarian at the Stillwater County Library for eight years (2008-2016), and for the last three years Smith has worked as a baker at the Fishtail General Store.

Smith has served on the Columbus School Board since 2012 and is seeking his third three-year term.


Smith believes he is qualified to serve on the school board because he has spent a significant portion of his life working with children.

He explained how he and Constance sponsored and taught summer camps, seeking to expose local children to topics that were not offered at the time. Smith put on a pair of science camps, a Spanish camp, a theatre camp, and an improv comedy club.

“That’s my contribution to the community,” Smith said of his consistent record of helping local children learn and explore new topics.


Smith is running to serve another term on the school board to finish the projects he has been a part of over his two terms.

Columbus Schools is in the midst of a large remodeling project at the elementary and high schools, and he feels connected to the project and would like to see it all the way through. Smith has also recently been involved in interviewing applicants for open teaching positions in the school district. He described the process as satisfying, and he believes the school district found some very qualified people.

Smith explained how it has been “such a pleasure” to know the students in Columbus and watch them grow up and become impressive, successful adults. He hopes to continue engaging with, and serving, the students and school district for years to come.



“I was born and raised in Red Lodge. I attended Rocky Mountain College in Billings, majoring in Aeronautical Science with a minor in Business Management. Since graduating from RMC, I have worked as a professional pilot for three different airlines and lived in Montana the whole time.

“Along with my career as a professional pilot, I also have been teaching at Rocky Mountain College as an adjunct professor for the past five years. I currently sit on the Aviation Advisory Board at Rocky Mountain College.

“I moved to Columbus in 2008. The school system and family being here is what brought us to Columbus. I am married to Tanya Baum and we have five children.”


“I am qualified for the position, in my opinion, because I currently have four children enrolled (one high schooler, one middle schooler, and two elementary schoolers) in the Columbus schools. Next year I will add a fifth child. I am aware, on a daily basis, of the goings-on in each of the three separate school buildings we have.

“With students enrolled in all the schools, I interact, on a regular basis, with staff, teachers, children, and parents from all the grades. This provides me with current issues (positive and negative) and potential changes that could have a positive impact on students and staff, plus I have a front row seat to observe what works well for our school system.

“I believe I bring a unique perspective due to my collegiate board experience and teaching.”


“I have thoroughly enjoyed volunteering my time to help our students and staff have the best school possible. I am excited to be involved with our growing school and hope to help make it the best possible experience for our faculty, staff, and students.”



“I come from Stillwater County. I am a fourth-generation Montanan. I was raised in Stillwater County until I was 18. I left for college where I got a bachelor of science degree from Montana State in Agriculture Extension.

“After college, I spent 15 years in Colorado working for ag co-ops, Colorado Department of Agriculture and in oil and gas.

“I was blessed with the opportunity to move back home to Columbus seven years ago. I’ve been married to my wife Jennifer for 23 years. We have two amazing kids, Avery (11-years-old) and Kaeden (15-years-old), and Augustus (Gus), my bird dog.”


“As a person who was raised by a teacher and who also minored in Ag Education, a parent with longtime community ties, as well as my unique background in self-employment and entrepreneurship, I feel I can bring a fresh perspective to what a well-rounded community school board should be.”


“There are a few reasons why I am running. First, I want to foster a collaborative relationship between our community, administration, staff and school board. I endorse open and free communication with the community.

“Second, by doing this it can create a stable learning environment for students that can help them thrive to their individual needs and talents.

“Finally, I will do my best to ask myself this for Columbus Schools: ‘If it is good for the kids- it is good for our district.’ Thank you kindly for the opportunity.”



“I have been in Columbus for almost eight years. I am married and have four children that attend the Columbus Schools. I have two sons that attend Columbus High School, a daughter that attends the middle school, and another daughter that attends the elementary school.

“I graduated from Montana Tech and have a bachelor of science degree in Environmental Engineering. I am employed by a local mining company and work as an Environmental Compliance Supervisor at the Metallurgical Complex.”


“I have served on various boards in the past and have worked with many different groups of people. For example, I currently sit on the Local Emergency Planning Committee. I have served on Sanitation Boards and church boards. I have been involved in the planning and permitting of different sites for my job.

“In the past, I have coached and refereed both soccer and basketball. I have been working weekly with the youth in our community for years, which gives me a unique perspective. Being a parent, as well as working with middle and high school-age students, I understand some of the challenges that the school system faces.

“I have attended numerous school board meetings in the last few years and participated in several interviews, most recently for the middle school assistant principle/ athletic director. By attending these meetings, I have shown that I am committed to being a part of the school board.

“I have leadership qualities and listening skills that are needed to be successful as a member of the school board. I will bring a fresh perspective to the school board and will serve with honesty and integrity.”


“Given that I have four students that attend the Columbus schools, I believe that I have a vested interest in making sure it continues to prosper. I believe that the future of our community and country relies heavily on the education and activities that our students are receiving in the public education system.

“I want to help ensure that each student is provided with a quality education that will prepare them to be successful in the career they decide to pursue. I believe that quality education comes from hiring and retaining quality teachers and administrators.

“I want to be able to provide constructive feedback regarding issues that are bought to the school board. I am willing to express my opinion and know that the best decisions are made when a team collaborates.

“I want to be available for you to share any concerns or ideas you may have to improve the schools. I would greatly appreciate your support in the upcoming school board election.”


Three local school districts will be holding levy elections next Tuesday. Here is an overview of those levy issues:


The Absarokee Elementary School District is seeking the approval of an additional general fund levy for 2.7 mills, totaling $21,145.30. The approximate tax increase for a $100,000 home would be $3.65 annually; for a $200,000 home, the levy would add $7.30 per year. This breaks down to about 30 cents per month for a $100,000 house and 61 cents per month for a $200,000 house.

According to Absarokee Superintendent Dustin Sturm, the necessity of the levy for Absarokee Elementary comes from dropping student enrollment. The amount of funds each school receives from the state government are determined based on the school’s enrollment numbers. This means that a school that is losing students, like Absarokee, will receive less funds from the state. Sturm explained that while the levy is for a total of about $21,000, next year’s school budget will only be approximately $600 greater than this year’s budget.

The additional $20,400 is needed to cover the gap in state funding that will exist next year. This is needed for Absarokee Elementary to simply maintain the educational opportunities that are currently available. The school district has been taking measures in recent years to cover increases in insurance and salaries by cutting costs from the budget, Sturm added. He noted that another tactic that has been used is to not fill some open positions to help the budget. If Tuesday’s levy were to not pass, Sturm said the school will have to cut additional items from the budget.

The levy issue on next week’s ballot is for the elementary school general fund. This means the funds will go towards supporting general operations. A significant portion of the general fund (about 90 percent) is dedicated to salaries and insurance, Sturm explained. The remaining 10 percent is used to purchase textbooks and supplies, as well as for operational necessities such as heat, electricity, and propane. In contrast to a general fund levy that requires voter approval, the school also has permissive levies it can increase without seeking voter approval. Permissive levies are levies that go towards specific funds such as transportation, technology, and tuition, and the money can only be used for exactly what the account specifies (ex: money in the transportation fund must go towards buses).

The Absarokee School District did not increase any of its permissive levies this year. Sturm expects dropping enrollment in Absarokee Schools to continue into the foreseeable future as the district graduates several large classes and has relatively small incoming classes. This will necessitate the use of taxpayer dollars to help maintain the Absarokee school system’s current programs.


The Park City High School District is seeking approval for a 16.64-mill levy to increase the general fund operational budget by $75,000. The levy would cost approximately $22.47 annually for a home valued at $100,000; the annual increase would be $44.94 for a $200,000 home.

This breaks down to $1.87 per month for a $100,000 house and a $3.75 increase per month for a $200,000 house. A notice from the school regarding the levy explains that for years, the school districts in Park City have been functioning at “almost the bare minimum, with the elementary functioning at 83 percent of our budget authority and the high school at 81 percent of our budget authority (most schools in our area operate at 100 percent of budget authority).”

It explains that the schools have been “operating at the minimum funding level that the state provides funding for through the state budget and state mandated levies.” Last year, Park City Schools requested levies for the elementary and high school districts and they both failed. The failure of those levies directly impacted the students, and the notice from the school district explains exactly how:

“Last year we cut several areas in order for the budget to work, including textbooks and supplies. We can’t continue to do that and provide a quality educational experience for students. If (this year’s) levy fails, there will likely be some program cuts. We need to do our best in preparing our students for life after high school, whether it is college, trade school, the military, or the work force.”

Park City Superintendent Dan Grabowska explained that the high school’s history textbooks are currently more than 20-years-old, but the school was not able to purchase new ones due to the failed levy last year. If this year’s levy fails, it would mean the cuts from last year would compound. While the elementary district budget does not require a levy this year due to retirements, the high school budget will need a levy.

With the $75,000 general fund levy, the high school will be operating at 87 percent of its budget authority, a percentage the school’s notice describes as “still a conservative budget.” Grabowska described how the general fund covers “regular, every-day expenditures” such as supplies, textbooks, and salaries. It will not fund things such as buses or technology, for which the district has separate, specifically-earmarked funds that are covered by non-voted permissive levies.

“We real ize that any increase can be a lot for some people, but we are hoping that some decreases in our permissive levies, as noted at our March school board meeting, (will mean) folks will not actually see that overall increase,” says the school district’s notice.


The Rapelje Elementary School District will have two levy issues on next week’s ballot. The first is an elementary general fund levy for  .9 5 mills , totaling $4,625.66. For a house with a value of $100,000, taxes would increase approximately $ 1.28 anually for a $200,000 home, the levy would cost about $2.57 each year.

This breaks down to a monthly increase of about 11 cents for a $100,000 home and 21 cents for a $200,000 home. The general fund levy is necessary for the “proper maintenance and operation of the school programs for the 2019-2020 school year,” according to a mill levy election notice from the school.

Rapelje Superintendent Annette Hart explained that, “Our elementary budget is straining.” The elementary budget not only includes kindergarten through sixth grade, but it also includes seventh and eighth grade, she noted. This means that the salaries for the K-6 faculty are supported by the budget in addition to about one-third of the high school teacher salaries. Supplies for kindergarten through eighth grade also come out of the elementary budget.

Hart described how the yearly budget increase “has not kept pace with the rate of inflation and health insurance increases.” This is the reason the school district is seeking the general fund levy, according to Hart. The second levy issue is for an elementary new technology levy of 2.06 mills, equaling $10,000 per year for 10 years for a grand total of $100,000. A house valued at $100,000 would see an increase in taxes of $2.78 each year; taxes on a $200,000 home would go up $5.56 a year for the decade the levy is in place. A monthly breakdown of the increase would come to about 23 cents for a house valued at $100,00 house and 46 cents for a $200,000 house.

According to the election notice, the new technology levy would cover the “purchasing, renting, repairing and maintaining technological equipment” including various hardwares, softwares, and services. Hart explained that the elementary has never before had a technology levy. Instead, technology, IT salaries, and infrastructure were taken out of the general fund. “With a building reserve levy lapsing, taxes will be decreasing to help offset the technology levy, i f itpasses,” she added.