By Ron VandenBoom
Linda McCulloch, Democratic candidate for superintendent of public instruction, said she is the only candidate with legislative experience that is also currently working as a classroom teacher.
McCulloch is currently a school librarian at Bonner School southeast of Missoula and since 1995 a state legislator from House District 70.
"Those 90 days can make us or break us in education," McCulloch said, referring to the time the Montana Legislature is in session.
Toward that end, McCulloch served on the House Education Committee in 1997 and was the vice chairman of the Education Committee in during the 1999 session.
She said her experience in the Legislature gives her the knowledge on how best to serve the needs of school districts in the Office of Public Instruction and makes her intimately familiar with funding issues currently plaguing our schools.
"I think we need more funding, but the way we need to do it needs to be looked at," she said, explaining that 10 years ago the state funded 72 percent of our schools while today only about 63 percent is funded by the state.
"It has more than doubled what local taxpayers have had to make up," McCulloch said. "We need to build up the state level of funding."
She added that the best way to understand the way school funding impacts the schools is to go into the schools and see what they're doing.
This, too, is something McCulloch believes herself uniquely qualified to do. She notes that shortages of basic things like books are occurring in all schools at a time when the cost of utilities and other supplies are fixed or rising.
"The person in that job must have an active working knowledge of the classroom," she said.
Part of that knowledge includes the current need for qualified teachers in the state.
"We need to raise teachers' salaries," she said.
McCulloch said she is aware that many Montanans believe teachers are well compensated for what they do, but she also believes the attitude of many Montanans is changing as they become better informed about the issue.
"We are training quality teachers and we are losing them to other states," she said. "Other states are snapping up our teachers because they know we are producing quality teachers."
Starting salaries in many Montana school districts are less than $20,000 a year, she said.
McCulloch said that she believes Montana does a remarkable job in education, noting that "we're doing a world class job here." But she also recognizes some unique challenges facing educators and school systems of the next generation.
"We are educating children for jobs and we don't even know what those jobs will be 20 years from now," she said.
She marvels at the technological changes that have occurred during the last 20 years, explaining that computers didn't even exist 20 years ago. But she said she is also concerned about the rise in the level of violence in schools, noting that children need to feel safe when they attend school.
McCulloch said she has lived through bomb threats at her school and also experienced an exploding boiler in her school that spread asbestos throughout the building and forced the evacuation of the building for weeks.
"Schools need to make plans," McCulloch said. "It's not enough to just draw up a plan to put on a library shelf somewhere. We need to learn the roots of violence."
She added that parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members all need to work together to solve the problem.
"Parents need to back up the teachers and schools need effective policies concerning violence," she said.
McCulloch said she doesn't believe the superintendent of public instruction can be effective if they don't know what's going on in the school. Toward that end, she promised if elected to spend as much time as possible traveling to school districts throughout Montana and listening to the concerns of parents, teachers, and administrators.