By Ron VandenBoom
Gail Gray, Democratic candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, said she has been involved in education ever since she was a little girl who played school while growing up in Cut Bank.
But today it's no longer a game and Gray is running as a Democrat for the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Her only competition for the Democratic nod to have so far made it official is Linda McCulloch, a Democrat from Missoula.
In Havre Tuesday to attend a Hi-Line administrators meeting, Gray listed funding and accountability as the top issues facing Montanans in the next legislative session.
"No matter who you talk to, I think that will have to be an area that they will be addressing," she said. "Not only the money, ... but also the schools being accountable for that money."
Gray said she believes people in Montana are willing to support better funding for education, but only if accountability comes with it.
"Taxpayers aren't going to be willing to put more money in unless they know what they are going to get out of it," she said.
Despite a $30 million increase in funding passed by the last legislative session, Gray said she is not optimistic Montana's smaller communities, such as many of those along the Hi-Line, will benefit.
That amounts to only 3.5 percent at the elementary level for each of two years and a 1.5 percent increase for the secondary level, she said.
"But that's per student," she said. "And if you're one of the schools that is losing population you actually have less money."
Gray, however, does not see consolidation of smaller schools by state mandate as a viable option to declining enrollments, but she does see a voluntary consolidation of some services in some districts as a possible alternative. She noted that such arrangements as the sharing of administrators and athletic directors has already occurred in some smaller Montana communities to save money.
Exacerbating the problem will be a shortage of teachers that Gray sees as just over the horizon.
Surveys conducted by the Office of Public Instruction indicate that teachers in the areas of music and special education are already in short supply and guidance. Vocational education and elementary teachers are also falling short.
Gray said retiring teachers and teachers leaving the profession for better opportunities in other occupations contribute to the problem, but new teachers, saddled with large college debts, are also looking to other states with higher salaries for employment.
Also affecting education in Montana are the development of computers and the Internet.
Gray said the Internet is providing some equalization in schools, noting that small communities have equal opportunities with large schools, thanks to the Internet and computers. But Gray also notes that while Montana was at one time near the top in terms of student to computer ratios, the state can no longer claim that distinction.
Gray, an 11-year veteran in the position of assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction under Under U.S. House candidate Nancy Keenan, said she decided to run because "when you've been in a job for a long time, there's always things that you want to do, interests that you have, and when the superintendent decided not to run, I decided to run."
She has experience as the director of Special Education, director of the Montana Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, and as assistant State Superintendent for Curriculum Services. She has also served on numerous education related councils, panels and task forces during her time with in state government.