His hometown connection helps and hurts – Profile – Kirk Miller, school district chief, is denied a chance to ask the legislature for more funds – Brief Article

Jay P. Goldman

As he’d done many times before, Kirk Miller made the 200-mile drive to Helena, Montana’s capital, in January 2000 eager to testify before a legislative appropriations committee on the statewide school improvement budget he had worked on diligently over four years. He figured he was in a good position to effect a significant funding boost because the influential committee vice-chair represented an area just outside Havre, the town where he was the district superintendent.

After waiting patiently for nearly two hours for his turn at the microphone, Miller was abruptly told just as he was introduced that no further testimony would be taken. Outside the hearing room, Miller questioned the legislative leader, Matt McCann, why he had been prevented from airing his prepared comments.

“I knew what you were going to say and I knew that you’d try to talk us into things we didn’t have the money for,” the legislator told him. “I couldn’t let that happen.”

Miller accepted the explanation as a compliment. It’s also indicative of the degree of respect Miller commands on statewide education issues. Montana’s former governor, Marc Racicot, acknowledged that as well when he appointed Miller in 1996 to a seat on the Montana State Board of Education, which elected him its chair in 2000. It’s an unusual dual leadership role for someone who’s only 43 yet has been a superintendent in two communities for nine years.

At both the state and local levels, Miller takes a calm, collected and methodical approach to his leadership. That plays well when he facilitates discussions and policy agreements between a state board appointed by a GOP governor and a state superintendent of public instruction elected as a Democrat.

Those personal traits have been essential to his success in Havre, a small town in north central Montana about 30 miles from the Canadian border. It’s where he grew up, graduated from high school and came back to teach mathematics and coach tennis for eight years before moving into administration. Like most communities statewide, Havre is being put to the supreme test by declining state aid for schools and a perennially falling student enrollment.

Miller’s coping response is to build flexibility into Havre’s school operations. He directed a decisive move in that direction within the past year, reconfiguring the district’s neighborhood schools into a system with separate buildings for K-1, 2-3 and 4-5 and closing one underutilized school.

The bold plan could have sparked public outrage, but Miller sold it masterfully to the community, in the consensus view of the school board chairman, a PTO official and the news director of the local radio station. “Everybody had figured he’d get tarred and feathered and run out of town,” says Jim Heberly, chair of the school board, but the plan was adopted unanimously.

With less revenue, the superintendent also began the painful task of rolling back some programs. At a luncheon in front of 140 agitated senior citizens, he had to defend his decision to cut the equivalent of 12 certified staff, including an elementary music teaching post that became half-time. The angry audience included the mother of the high school band director, a local resident he’d known growing up, whose poignant word of opposition, he says, “tugged at my heart.”

Miller figures his lifelong relationship with Havre residents played to his advantage. “They realized I wouldn’t be dismantling a program if there were any other options.”

Some of those friends targeted him for great things based on how he conducted himself as a teen-age employee at Taco John’s, a local eatery. “He was exceptional in the way he was in charge of the other workers,” recalls Theresa Larson, a fellow employee then and now a parent of three children in Havre schools. “He did the scheduling and the training and anything the boss wanted him to do. By the time he was in college, he was the assistant manager.

Miller’s career direction was set early on, enhanced by the connections of the young Havre woman who’d eventually become his wife. “My wife’s mother was a teacher at the high school. My father-in-law was a superintendent in the late ’50s and early ’60s,” he says. “The talk around the dinner table was frequently about the current school issues.

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org



Currently: superintendent, Havre, Mont., Public Schools

Earlier: superintendent, Cascade, Mont.

Age: 43

Greatest Influence on Career: From teaching to school administrator to district superintendent, the goal to help others was instilled in me at an early age by my parents.

Best Professional Day: I couldn’t choose just one: (1) Being asked by the senior class to deliver the graduation address at Havre High School; (2) Presiding as chair of the Montana Board of Education in the absence of the governor; (3) Graduating from Montana State University with a doctorate in educational leadership.

Books at Bedside: Letting Go: A Parents Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger; Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul by Jack Canfield and others; The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw; and Total Leaders by Charles J. Schwahn and William G. Spady

Biggest Blooper: In some people’s minds, the fact our district remains committed to meeting the state standards, even during the toughest financial times, which has created public relations challenges along the way.

A Reason Why I’m an AASA Member: Research-oriented, practical support for practicing school superintendents. Pertinent, up-to-date information on federal legislation so that the impact on local districts can be assessed and action can be taken.

COPYRIGHT 2002 American Association of School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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