Gazette Opinion: Best choice for Billings superintendent

April 6, 2018 GMT

Billings Public School trustees are looking for a great educator and community leader to succeed Terry Bouck, who will retire in June. They are scheduled to pick their top candidate on April 14.

After considering trustees’ interviews last week and other information on their three finalists, The Gazette editorial board members believe there is one who would be right for Billings and a highly capable successor to Bouck.

Greg Upham, assistant superintendent for Helena Public Schools, has the most administrative experience in a K-12 district. He has been a leader in Helena district as a vocational education teacher, assistant principal at Capital High, principal at Helena High and assistant superintendent for the past five years.

“Billings has an appetite to help students learn,” Upham told trustees last week. “I’d like to see all students learn at high levels. That’s a lot of hard work.”

The success of school levies requires the trust of the community, he said. Helena schools’ first attempt at a building bond failed for lack of clear communication, Upham said, adding that successful proposal was less complex.

He has been part of union contract negotiations as a teacher or administrator for 20 years. “I really enjoy the consensus approach, where we work together and build trust,” he said.

At Helena High, he led a staff that identified student mental health care as a top unmet need and obtained a $5 million federal grant to develop services for students. During Upham’s tenure as a principal, Helena graduation rates improved significantly as he and others implemented smaller learning communities, freshman academies and credit recovery options. As principal, he gathered all 14 AA principals to work together to address common concerns

As assistant superintendent, Upham worked to dramatically increase the number of Helena students taking advanced placement tests, which encourage high student achievement and can save families money on college. At the same time, Upham helped create pre-apprenticeship programs that aim to place high school students at construction sites for the district’s new schools where they will get hands-on instruction and start a college career path to higher skills and job opportunities.

Upham’s Montana background is a plus. Speaking with Billings trustees, he demonstrated an extensive understanding of the work they and Bouck have done to improve our schools, including facility planning, strategic planning and budgeting.

A Blackfeet tribal member, Upham grew up in Great Falls and began his career in Browning schools 30 years ago. From there, he moved to Belt before landing in Helena.

Outside of the public schools, Upham is known as the color commentator for Carroll College Saints football. Among his other community activities, Upham has volunteered with Rotary and the Lewis and Clark foster care review board. He coached high school football, track and wrestling and has been a sportscaster for both college and high school events for TV, radio and internet. Upham and his wife, Keri, raised two children who attended Carroll.

Helena’s present superintendent, Jack Copps, gives Upham high marks. Copps, who served two stints as interim superintendent in Billings, said Upham is talented in career and technical education as well as efforts to boost ACT testing and academic successes. He said Upham has done a good job with community presentations on the district’s building projects and his work with architects and contractors.

“I really do think he would fit well,” Copps said when The Gazette phoned. “He is very well prepared to assume the superintendency.”

The editorial board seconds Copps’ endorsement. Upham has the broad, deep range of experience and Montana knowledge that would serve Billings well.

We commend Billings trustees for the time and energy they have devoted to the superintendent search and ask them to weigh the breadth of in-the-schools, out-in-the-community candidate experience in making their hiring decision.