Q&A With The School Board Candidates
1. Describe your background: family, education, occupation, community service, involvement with local schools.
I was born and raised in Glasgow. My parents, Marc and Debbie Swanson, made their home in Glasgow following college, and raised my sisters and me here, surrounded by extended family and friends. I attended kindergarten through 12th grade in the Glasgow schools and graduated from Glasgow High School with honors. I then attended MSU Billings, majoring in business and accounting.
I chose to leave my job as a personal banker for Wells Fargo Bank in Billings and to return to Glasgow in late 2005. My son was beginning preschool, and I wanted to raise him in Glasgow’s school system, surrounded by family. My husband, Josh, and I have made our home in Glasgow, and are raising our three children. My son Cale attended First Lutheran Preschool, kindergarten through third grade at Irle School, and is currently in J Billingsley’s fifth-grade class at Eastside. Josh’s children, Pacyn and Lexy, attended kindergarten through fourth and eighth grades in Glasgow’s schools. They currently live in Beach, N.D ., for the school year, spending summers in Glasgow. As a parent of a child in the district, I think I can bring a unique perspective to board discussions. I am the only candidate with children in the district, and if I am elected, I will be the only school board trustee with a child currently enrolled in our district.
I am a third-generation Glasgow business owner, and I am the general manager of Farm Equipment Sales (FES). For those who are not familiar with FES, we were founded by my grandfather, Edwin Swanson, in 1964, and we are Montana’s largest John Deere dealership. We employ an outstanding team of 75 employees, who from our four eastern Montana locations (Glasgow, Plentywood, Culbertson and Circle) provide superior agriculture parts, sales and service to approximately half of Montana and parts of western North Dakota.
I have served as a director for the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, and am a member of Two Rivers Economic Development and the local Kiwanis club. My son, Cale, is involved in many youth sports groups in Glasgow, Cal Ripken Baseball, Kiwanis Swim Team, KC Football, Hi-Line Youth Hockey, and the Glasgow Wrestling Club. I am a dedicated fan, chauffeur, cheerleader and a regular volunteer for all of his activities.
2. How has your experience prepared you for a trustee position?
The skills I utilize as general manager of FES will be very transferable to the Glasgow School Board. I manage a large, multimillion dollar budget, four teams of employees aligned around department and function, and I manage relationships with multiple stakeholders, from manufacturers and bankers to insurance companies, employee and management groups, and multiple industry and professional organizations. I am responsible to lead the efforts to recruit and retain top talent to our company, and to ensure that our staff have access to the highest quality training and professional development opportunities once they join our team.
One of the initiatives I helped to develop at FES is our technician degree training program, called John Deere Tech. The goal of this program is to recruit graduates interested in a career in agriculture, who will return to our communities after obtaining their degree. FES provides interest-free tool loans, coaching and hands on training for students as they go through the program, and tuition reimbursement and full time employment upon graduation. The end result of our program is that four years after high school graduation, our sponsored students hold an associates of applied science degree, own a professional set of tools outright, are student loan debt-free, and earn over $40,000 per year. Enabling them to return to our communities, purchase homes, start families and build their lives here. As a trustee I will encourage the board and our administrators to seek out and establish additional partnerships with other local businesses, creating additional career opportunities for our students.
In 2013, I managed several large construction projects. In our Glasgow facility, I oversaw the construction of a 21,000-square-foot state of the art service department expansion, the remodeling of our existing shop space, and the remodeling of our parts department and show room facilities. In our Circle location, I am currently overseeing the renovation of our parts department and construction of a new sales department wing. In 2014, I will manage the construction of our first in-house training and distance learning facility.
I have taken the time to thoroughly review the Strategic Plan adopted by the board and I was very pleased to learn that it is an adaptation of the model developed by Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great” and “Built to Last.” I have studied Jim Collins’ work extensively. I have his books, as well as those authored by Dr. Michael O’Connor, on my desk at FES and I refer to them often as leadership references. I believe I can immediately contribute to worthwhile discussions surrounding the district’s Strategic Plan without needing to spend additional time studying Mr. Collins’ work to get up to speed on the process itself. I already utilize the same process every day.
3. Why are you running for trustee?
After careful consideration and much discussion with my family, I have decided to run for the open Glasgow School Board trustee position because I genuinely feel I am the most qualified candidate for the job. The skills I have developed in business, budgeting, people management and construction, are unparalleled by the other candidates and I believe I can immediately contribute to deep discussion of the issues facing the board. I am running for the board because as a parent, business owner and taxpayer, there are three main issues facing our school district that I believe need our immediate and careful attention.
4. What are the most important issues for our schools?
The district’s Strategic Plan identifies multiple issues that the board has identified as necessary to address. All of these are worthwhile endeavors, but I think it would be more successful to break it down, and to focus on three to five specific and measurable issues each year.
As I mentioned earlier, I am running for the trustee position for three main issues:
1.) Recruiting and retaining top teachers and coaches into our district.
Glasgow School District lost 14 teachers this year, which I believe is more than any other single year in at least 30 years. GHS has hired a new principal, there were 12 open teaching positions, and the wrestling, drama, basketball and track programs all need new head coaches to continue their traditions of success.
Glasgow has a history of excellence in the classroom and a tradition of success on the competition field. I look forward to participating in discussions about developing policies and procedures to help our administration team create a comprehensive hiring policy. If we are to continue to strive for excellence, we must seek out the best and brightest teachers, and we must hire coaches with proven track records of success to add to our team. To accomplish this, we will need to expand our recruiting efforts to cast a net wider than just online listings with the Montana OPI website.
After observing the hiring process for the new high school principal, and discussing that process with the current board trustees and administrators, I believe that I can contribute to board discussions around developing more effective and consistent hiring and interviewing policies to empower the administration team to recruit and hire the best candidates. Our district should put the tools in place to empower those responsible for interviewing our applicants, to interview in a systematic and targeted way, going well beyond basic skills and qualifications listed on a resume.
Our interviews should search for the key capabilities already demonstrated by our highest performers, to ensure we continue to set our district up for long term success. A successful interview process will include input from multiple stakeholders, including the board, the district’s administrators, our department chairs and members of the community when their expertise in a field outweighs that of the district’s personnel. For example, GHS needs a new drama coach. The district should reach out and encourage a representative of the Fort Peck Theatre, or other local civic groups with experience in hiring actors and coaches, to assist in the process. Our focus should be on recruiting and retaining the best possible candidate for each position within our district.
Our district’s Strategic Plan is an adaptation of the model developed by Jim Collins. The core tenet of Collins’ model is: “Culture first, then people.” Aligning our district’s administrators, teachers and classified workers around our central culture and our district’s core values will enable us to build a consistent system with clear constraints, giving our teaching staff freedom and responsibility within the framework of the system. It will guide us to hiring self-disciplined teachers and coaches who don’t need to be micro-managed, allowing the board to manage the system and the district, not the people. It is a great strategy for the board to have adopted, and I believe I am capable of discussing the steps necessary to fully implement this plan.
2.) Ensuring that Glasgow’s schools have the tools and resources they need to fully align with and meet the new Common Core accreditation standards required by the Department of Education.
Unfortunately, whether we agree with the direction or not, the Department of Education, through these new Common Core standards, is changing the way we look at education. If we are to continue to prepare our students for success after high school, we must meet and exceed these standards.
I would like to see the board begin by fully utilizing the tools our district’s team already has in place. Specifically, as a board trustee I would encourage the board to ensure that the district’s “Needs Assessment” is compiled annually, and presented to the board at the beginning of each calendar year. The Needs Assessment is a unique and powerful tool that has proven to be time tested and highly effective in the Glasgow School District. It allows input from all members of our staff team. It begins with the teachers and classified workers. From there it is compiled on a department, grade level, individual school, and finally district level, before it is presented to the board for their review.
It isn’t often that the board has the opportunity to gain such raw input from every member of the staff, and I believe completing the Needs Assessment needs to become an immediate and annual priority. The board simply cannot prioritize spending, maintenance, professional development and other district needs without a tool such as this, and it is unfortunate that they didn’t have the opportunity to utilize it in the current school year. After completing the Needs Assessment, the board needs to take an immediate interest in our district’s progress towards the required Common Core standards, and should regularly apprise parents and community members of our progress. To ensure success, the board must then ensure we are doing all we can to provide our teachers and administrators with the tools and resources necessary to meet and exceed these mandatory standards.
3.) The building projects and bond issue
I look forward to joining the board in discussions about all of the impending decisions on this project. Now that the community and the tax payers have entrusted $16.8 million to the board, the board has a responsibility to go above and beyond to demonstrate their good stewardship of these funds. Decisions should not be rushed just for the sake of making decisions on an arbitrary timeline. Instead, the board should ensure that all information is accurately gathered, and a full and robust discussion involving all key stakeholders should be allowed and encouraged.
Teachers, administrators, parents, land owners and business owners all want the same result, well designed and well built facilities that are built economically, that will serve our community for decades to come. As board trustees, it is our responsibility to ensure we are allowing and encouraging the discussions necessary to make the best decisions, and to take all efforts necessary to protect taxpayers’ generous investment into our schools.
5. What are your goals for continued high student achievement to support college and career readiness?
Glasgow is a great community, with many underutilized resources. Job shadowing, internships and other cooperative partnerships with our businesses are already available in our community. The board should encourage our administrators and guidance counselors to seek out and encourage these partnerships to supplement our educational offerings.
As for specific goals to ensure student readiness, fully implementing the district’s Strategic Plan, meeting and exceeding the new Common Core alignment requirements ahead of schedule, and ensuring that our district hires the best and brightest teachers and coaches to teach and mentor our students are imperative to our continued success, both as a district and as a community.
6. How can the school board foster the tradition of school partnership with businesses and the community as a whole?
Glasgow is finally making strides to turn around the brain drain that we experienced in previous decades. Looking around our community we see many GHS graduates who went on to become doctors, veterinarians, accountants, etc ., returning home to begin their practices. Many young entrepreneurs are starting their own retail businesses and are rejuvenating our downtown areas. We need to work to continue this pattern. And to do so, we need to ensure our schools continue to strive for excellence to give our children all of the tools they need to be successful.
Initially, this begins with the board’s full implementation of their Strategic Plan, and carries down into the hiring practices utilized by the district’s administrators. Over the long term, it should include inviting successful business leaders to partner with teachers and students to explore careers and opportunities after high school, and encouraging our parents, land owners and business leaders to take a more active role in the committees and business of the district.
I am running for Glasgow School Board trustee because as a parent, business owner and taxpayer in the Glasgow community, I am concerned about the direction of our school board. I am passionate about the long term success of our community, and I will make as much time as is necessary to serve as trustee. Please consider voting Sarah Swanson for School Board trustee on May 7. I would genuinely appreciate your vote.