Last month, current Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau lost a hard-fought campaign against Ryan Zinke for Montana’s sole House seat. On Friday, we chatted about the legacy she leaves as superintendent, her reflections on her campaign for Congress and what comes next.
Nicky Ouellet: Superintendent Juneau, thanks so much for dropping by.
Denise Juneau: Thanks so much for having me.
NO: Your tenure as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction ends January 2. What are you most proud of from your two terms?
DJ: Spending the last eight years overseeing the public education system and being its top advocate has been such an honor, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish both at the state level and then watching communities grow with initiatives like Graduation Matters Montana that really were community-based programs pulling people together.
We’ve also raised academic standards at the same time in English and math, science, arts, health and PE. So that diploma actually means more than ever. It means they’re better prepared. Students are graduating in historic numbers, and they are better prepared than ever for college, career and the military.
NO: What issues do you hope your successor Elsie Arntzen picks up or continues?
DJ: The idea public education is good in our state and the idea that we’ve been able to maintain its public nature. Our schools still take everybody who walks through their classroom doors. I think that’s a really good system that needs to be protected.
It’s not saying private school should not exist; that’s fine. It’s just that public money should not go to serve those private education institutions. And that should be a choice that parents make. I’m hoping that she realizes that and steps up into that position and maintains the public aspect of public education.
NO: Your track record as superintendent was one of your main campaign points during your run for Congress against Representative Ryan Zinke. Is there anything you would have done differently to win that campaign?
DJ: You know, I’ve been telling people I’m sad we lost that race, but I do not feel bad about our campaign at all. We did everything we were supposed to. We just lost. People believed in this race. They believed in my candidacy, and I couldn't ask for more than that.
NO: Your were able to raise $2.7 million — about a million more than John Lewis when he ran against Zinke in 2014. But you and Lewis both received the same percentage of votes — slightly over 40 percent. What do Democrats need to be doing differently to boost that percentage and win Montana’s House seat?
DJ: I think the house seat’s sort of been elusive to Democrats for a while. Twenty-six years since we've had this seat. I’m not sure what the strategy is or what needs to happen. It’s always hard to take on an incumbent. That was our case. So looking forward, it’s going to take a lot of work.
NO: Can we expect to see your name again on a ballot sometime soon?
DJ: If the answer was today, it would be no. I don't ever take anything off the table. I think every opportunity should still be in play, but you have to. It takes a lot to run for office. I look forward to a little time off to re-adjust the sails and think about what it is I want to do and accomplish. I do want to stay in Montana so I’ll be looking at opportunities in state.
NO: The Missoulian recently reported you’re thinking of applying to become the next president of the University of Montana. Is there truth in that report, and why would you want to take on that role?
DJ: I think I have a great record, and I am interested in the position. There’s so much going right now as I look forward and see opportunities that are out there. This is really an exciting one for me. I think of stepping up and providing leadership at the university level.
Working with the community; working with faculty, and working primarily with students and making sure that everybody has a voice on what the vision needs to be and then helping to execute that vision is a really good opportunity. I bring a skill-set that would be able to accomplish that. It is something I’ll be looking really closely at, and if the answer was today, it’d be: yeah, I’m going to apply for the UM Presidency.
NO: It’s an exciting time.
DJ: Yeah! It is. It’s sort of wide open, and I haven’t really been in a place recently where I haven’t had a job or been campaigning for a job. So I think this time of reflection for me and these next few months will really set me on a good path.
NO: Any other thoughts looking back at your tenure as superintendent, your campaign or thinking forward?
DJ: I look back, and I’ve been doing some of that recently. We’ve done so much, and it’s not just about Graduation Matters Montana. We’ve increased school lunches. We’ve increased farm-to-school efforts. Schools are now buying about $1.6 million in local foods across the state.
We’ve been able to make good efforts on mental health program in schools. We passed an anti-bully bill. Every aspect that a school does, we’ve been able to make great strides.We have really great things going on in our state, and there’s a lot to build on there.
That’s what I would look forward to the future for the next superintendent to build on those efforts. Support schools; support students, and support the staff at OPI because they do good work.
NO: Superintendent Denise Juneau, Thanks so much for joining us.
DJ: Thank you so much.