When Dave Fern first became a school board trustee in 1992 he saw it as an investment.
That investment turned into eight terms and nearly 24 years serving on the Whitefish School District board of trustees, of which about four years were as chairman.
“I would ask myself, am I still being fresh? Am I still looking forward to different ideas? And the answer was ‘yes,’” Fern said about his longevity on the board. “I always recommend to people when they seek election to these school boards or city councils, think of it at least as a two-term process recognizing there’s a lot to be learned and you’re investing time, and, in a sense, the system is investing a lot of time in you.”
Fern, 63, recently resigned from the Whitefish school board, shifting his focus to represent House District 5 in the Montana Legislature.
Fern also served as president of the Montana School Boards Association and was on the board of directors for the Montana High School Association during his tenure.
During an interview Dec. 19 in the new Whitefish High School, Fern walked upstairs and sat down in a commons area designed for students to meet in small groups and collaborate outside the classroom. Collaboration is one of the key skills of 21st century learning.
“I don’t think we use the word ‘collaboration’ as much as we do now. I think we think about collaboration at all ages at all levels,” Fern said.
Serving on the board has also been a collaboration between trustees, administrators, the community and other stakeholders Fern reflected.
Fern was part of many changes during his time on the board. The elementary, middle and high school underwent extensive remodels and additions. Administrators and planners are currently looking at renovating Muldown Elementary again. The high school transitioned to block scheduling and trustees are currently mulling a block schedule at the middle school.
New opportunities and curriculum have opened up for students, such as the high school’s Center for Applied Media, Arts and Sciences. Trustees are looking ahead and researching the possibility of language immersion at the elementary level.
THIS FORWARD thinking is necessary to provide new opportunities to prepare students for the future.
“School boards can’t get bogged down with what happened yesterday and strictly talk about incoming revenues and expenditures. That’s important stuff, but they need to spend some time thinking about educationally what is going on, and where the future is going. It’s really important to spend an adequate amount of time talking about the foundational principles of the school system and how we improve them,” Fern said.
Fern said education has become more personalized to students’ abilities and learning styles than ever before in his time on the board. The guarantee of providing educational opportunities to students as per the state constitution is a detail Fern wished to emphasize.
“It’s almost a customer service thing where we realize we have to do more than say we’re open for business and we have highly qualified teachers,” he said.
Some of those opportunities came in the form of an alternative high school.
“It took a while to convince people that we should budget additional dollars to provide an alternative setting for a set of students,” Fern said.
Opportunity has also come in the form of solutions other than suspensions or expulsions in regard to behavior.
“I think it’s really questioning a kid’s behavior. We want to provide opportunity and we recognize, for multiple reasons, a child is not finding success and we need to be proactive and come up with some solutions,” he said.
A school board, or any type of local board, committee or city council, is an important building block in the overall structure of state and federal government, Fern said.
“In my opinion, the political engine of this machine are things such as school boards and library boards and city councils and dog park boards — little things that collectively really make this country work at a high level and are very important,” Fern said.
While teaching methods, curriculum and technology change, Fern said one thing remains as education’s basic role — shape students into critical thinkers, who, when faced with endless information at their fingertips, can parse out fact from fiction and opinion. “
Schools have a part in figuring that out, but I think we do a really good job,” Fern said.
Even if he wasn’t elected to the Montana Legislature, Fern said this would have been his last term on the school board.
“There has to be a time, and this was the time,” Fern said. “I feel very good where we are [as a school district] and where we’re heading.”
Fern, owner of Chimney Solutions, has a wife, Heather, and three adult children who graduated from Whitefish High School.
Anyone interested in filling the board vacancy should complete an application and turn it in to the district office, 600 E. Second St., Whitefish, by 5 p.m. Jan. 12, 2017. Applications are available online at www.whitefishschools.org or at the district office.
A prospective candidate must be a resident of Whitefish School District and a registered voter.
Trustees will interview prospective candidates the week of Jan. 16, 2017. A new trustee will be selected at a Jan. 20 board meeting and seated in February.
The person appointed to the position will serve on the board through the May 2017 election.
For more information call district clerk Danelle Reisch at (406) 862-8640.
Hilary Matheson is a reporter for The Daily Inter Lake. She may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.