By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Editor's note: This is the first of four profiles of candidates running for two seats on the Havre school board.
Bonnie Benson has little problem naming the skills she says she has that suit her for a seat on the Havre school board.
She understands a budget from years of running her own barber shop, she said.
She also tells it as she sees it.
"I'm not afraid to speak my mind," said Benson, 43. "I think (board members) have to have a backbone and they have to be pretty tough-skinned because you have to make hard decisions that people are not going to like."
After sending her two children to Havre Public Schools, with her youngest, Joel, about to graduate, Benson said she wants to stay involved in Havre schools.
A volunteer at the Havre High School music department, Benson said she would like to be a "voice for the music department."
"I just think they need some advocates in there (supporting) these kids," she said. "It's the one place where everyone can participate," but music and art programs are the first to go when budgets get tight, she said.
Benson said she is an advocate of fiscal responsibility and is not afraid to make cuts as long as sports and the arts bear the burden equally.
She criticized the school board's recent decision to fund renovations to Blue Pony Stadium to the tune of $736,000.
"I just think it's an obscene amount of money to be spending," she said. "I just was ashamed that we're spending this kind of money for a football stadium and yet we don't have enough money to give teachers better health insurance," she said, adding that a teacher with a family has to pay more than $600 a month for health insurance.
Benson also has criticized the HPS administration for not always responding to complaints from the public in a constructive manner.
Benson declined to go into detail about her own experiences or ones she has heard about, and she said she thinks the administrators overall do a good job. But she said people she has talked to sometimes feel condescension from administrators when they call with a concern, and that they often get rhetoric about the district's commitment to children instead of a genuine response.
"The thing I have felt people have said to me is that I wish we could get answers," she said.
HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller said today the district follows a chain of command to deal with complaints. That chain begins with school-level administrators and proceeds to district-level administrators, including Miller. If parents are still unsatisfied, their complaints are addressed by the school board through a written appeal process, he said.
"There's lots of folks that have utilized that chain of command and have been satisfied with the outcome," Miller said.
Here is a brief breakdown of Benson's positions on some issues that have come before the Havre school board in the past year.
Benson said she does not believe No Child Left Behind, President Bush's sweeping education reform law, will work. The best possible scenario would be for the law to be repealed. She believes the responsibility for children's success in school rests with parents, and that teachers can't realistically ensure that their students are meeting the law's requirements.
"You're holding them accountable for something that's not in their control," she said.
Benson said she does not have a problem with HPS's decision to support a lawsuit by the Montana Quality Education Coalition to require the state to pay more for public education.
"If the state mandates we should have certain programs, they should be coughing up money to pay for the programs," Benson said, although she said that whether the money comes from the state or from local property taxes, ultimately it is still taxpayers who will foot the bill.
Although she says she enjoys attending HHS sports events, Benson said she probably would not support the addition of varsity sports like girls softball and boys cross country.
"I personally think we have enough sports programs," she said, adding that more sports will take more kids out of school. But the crucial question, she said, is whether the sports will be financially self-supporting.
"I think if we want to add something, maybe we should think of dropping something else," she said.
Benson said she does not know whether HPS has done enough to educate its students about racism and Native American culture. When asked what the school district should do to narrow the gap between Native American graduation rates and white graduation rates, Benson emphasized the importance of "parental participation and concern" in keeping kids in school.
"No matter what their nationality, it's getting harder and harder to keep kids in school," she said.
Benson supports the board's refusal to approve publicly funded schools for two local Hutterite colonies.
"I personally feel that we have enough room in our school and ways to get (Hutterite children) here," she said. The argument that Hutterite children don't want to come in because they would be ostracized does not sway Benson.
"Kids are ostracized and made fun of even if they're not Hutterites," she said. "I think if our administrators start sitting on some of these kids that are doing the (ostracizing), it could be controlled."
On the issue of whether to encourage larger, more efficient schools or to defend the right of parents to choose to send their children to small schools, Benson said she favors consolidation.
"I'm all for consolidating districts if it's going to save money," she said, adding that enrollment in Cottonwood and Davey schools is declining.
In a forum last week Benson said she supports teaching creationism alongside evolution in Havre schools.