Last spring, Missoula County’s school board election might have shocked Montana voters accustomed to crowded and contested electoral contests. Two high school district seats up for grabs on the Missoula County Public School Board failed to attract a single candidate. In the absence of anyone to vote for, the board put out a call for interested applicants and eventually installed two appointees: Mike Gehl in June, and Arlene Walker-Andrews in September.
Unlike the heated primary and general elections that command so much of Montanans’ attention every two years, the subdued tenor in Missoula last year is actually par for local school board races. Of the 19,446 voters registered to cast ballots in Missoula’s 2021 school election, 5,630 did so — a turnout rate of 29%. Despite the considerable authority and autonomy granted to school boards within Montana’s public education system, the elections that decide who wields that authority have largely ducked the attention and friction associated with electoral battles for legislative, statewide or federal office.
As the May 3 school board elections approach, Gehl and Walker-Andrews are both facing challengers for the positions they’re running to keep. The board’s third high school district is also in contention, and a total of seven candidates are vying for three seats representing MCPS’s elementary schools. Thousands of dollars in contributions have been channeled into yard signs, glossy flyers and campaign websites, in stark contrast to past cycles when not a single school board candidate has had to file a financial disclosure form with the state. And in a way, it’s all due to COVID-19.
Public health measures adopted by schools during the pandemic became a flashpoint for parents nationwide, sparking organized opposition to mandatory masking and vaccination requirements. Remote instruction gave families a more intimate look inside their children’s classrooms, and some parents didn’t agree with everything they saw. The past two years have transformed public education into one of the most politically divisive arenas of our time, and school board seats are increasingly seen as an opportunity to either fix a wayward and unresponsive system or reaffirm a commitment to long-standing educational tenets.
Despite the nonpartisan nature of school board races, various candidates interviewed by Montana Free Press in Missoula County agree that in 2022, two distinct camps have emerged along partisan lines: One inspired by the same concerns driving Montana’s nascent parental rights movement, and the other voicing a desire to depoliticize education and resist what it perceives as a regressive social agenda.
“The one thing that COVID has done to all of us, it’s shut everybody’s doors,” said elementary district candidate Amy Livesay. “People have been at home, they’ve kind of gotten on their sides, they’re listening to what they want to listen to that affirms what they think. That’s what we’re all doing. But if you can get out and talk to people, whether it’s somebody on the school board who I don’t agree with, and you realize that they’re a person, they have true concerns, they may have true fears or whatever, you are able to deal with people and … to empathize and to hear them better.”
State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen took the public, and members of a regulatory review committee, by surprise this week with a recommendation that Montana nix its mandated school counselor ratio.
Livesay’s ambitions for the board run a gamut, from reasserting its leadership in the district’s hierarchy to taking a critical look at a budget influenced by rampant community growth. Her core message is that a quality education should teach kids how to think, not what to think. While those plans may resonate with a broad swath of candidates, Livesay’s recent involvement with the parental rights movement has planted her squarely on one side of the debate.
Last November, Livesay and Gehl told a gathering of parental rights activists at Missoula’s Crosspoint Community Church that the 2022 school election presents a unique opportunity to reshape public education. Claim six seats on the MCPS board, they said, and they could push back against the forces that had enacted a district-wide mask mandate that fall. It was the same event where Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades quipped that people should “shoot” superintendents they didn’t agree with — a comment he later retracted, and that Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who was also in attendance, publicly condemned.
That evening at Crosspoint has become a pivotal moment connecting Livesay, Gehl and elementary district candidate Jill Taber to the broader parental rights movement. Their November discussion at the church, where Livesay and Gehl had previously expounded on the benefits of homeschooling their children, was promoted by the Western Montana Liberty Coalition. The conservative grassroots group advocates for parental rights and lauds Livesay, Gehl and Taber as “the future leaders [of] our government financed school system.” The coalition’s website includes links to several far-right groups that deny the science behind COVID-19 vaccination and perpetuate allegations of voting irregularities in Missoula County’s 2020 election.
While supporters of those candidates have applauded their vocal stand against school masking, additional developments since then have amplified skepticism and concern over their political leanings among others on the ballot. In December, Gehl co-authored a letter defending Arntzen in the face of mounting criticism about her job performance. The letter lauded the state superintendent’s efforts to aid parents in “resisting [district] superintendent agendas of forced masking and equity policies” and proclaimed her a “true pioneer and champion of parental rights and parental choice.” Karen Sherman, a Lolo resident who is challenging incumbent high school district trustee Ann Wake this May, was one of several hundred people statewide who co-signed the letter.
The strongest nod yet to the camp’s conservative alignment arrived this week when some Missoula voters received text messages encouraging support for Taber’s candidacy. The text campaign was paid for by Leadership in Action, a Helena-based political action committee that, according to its website, “supports conservative candidates up and down the ballot that have the integrity, vision and grit to get Montana and our country back on track.” The PAC lists Attorney General Austin Knudsen as its “honorary chairman.” After reaching out via email to the group’s listed treasurer, Katie Wenneta, MTFP received a response from GOP strategist Jake Eaton of The Political Company, who confirmed that Leadership in Action “is [Knudsen’s] leadership PAC.” Eaton added that the group will be making further independent campaign expenditures throughout 2022. Leadership in Action is a federal PAC registered with the Federal Election Commission.
COVID protocols may have drawn this group to the ballot, but their motivations in gaining a controlling interest in Missoula’s public schools extend well beyond masking. The broader parental rights movement from which they hail views the public education system as rife with values-laden instruction they disagree with, and actively challenges lessons about race or gender that its members perceive as undermining their family beliefs. They’ve condemned what they define as “critical race theory” and pushed back on the notion of “equity” — issues where Arntzen is squarely in their corner. Meanwhile, Missoula candidates not affiliated with the parental rights movement have called for a focus on the routine duties the school board has always engaged in — crafting the district’s budget, reviewing curricula, hiring educators — with an eye toward improving and enhancing education’s existing infrastructure. None dispute that parents have rights and play a vital role in their children’s education, but aspiring trustees in this camp place considerable trust in the system and in teachers.
In response to the politicized atmosphere, a trio of elementary district candidates endorsed by the Missoula Education Association and Merged Missoula Classified Employees Organization have banded together with shared social media presences and identically styled yard signs. Rob Woelich, a flight instructor challenging Gehl, has dedicated a portion of his website to information about the other 12 candidates on the MCPS ballot — information gleaned from news stories, endorsements and a questionnaire Woelich distributed to most of the candidates via email. Woelich went so far as to categorize candidates as either “pro-science” or “anti-science,” a sorting he figured would trigger pushback and anger — but that so far, he said, hasn’t.
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“I knew going into that it might be a risky strategy when everybody else is trying to portray themselves as the positive candidate, the neutral one,” Woelich said. “But it’s something I feel strongly about, and it’s something that I wanted to put out there so that everybody in Missoula could see exactly what I thought and what was going on.”
This cadre of candidates tacks along a more traditional and familiar course, promoting issues and ideas that build on the current state of Missoula’s public schools. Woelich talks of the need to improve teacher recruitment and retention, and the challenges raised on those fronts by skyrocketing housing costs in the city. Elementary district candidate Meg Whicher puts strengthening behavioral and mental health support for students near the top of her list, along with bolstering kindergarten readiness — both priorities inspired by her experience working with MCPS on afterschool programming in her job at Missoula Parks and Recreation. Whicher is one of the trio of elementary district candidates working in tandem, along with accountant Keegan Witt and incumbent trustee Wilena Old Person, program coordinator at the University of Montana’s College of Health.
“I say we’re cousins, not married,” Whicher said of the unified campaigns. “I’m not agreeing to vote the same with them every time. There’s nothing like that. But we each individually, in the aspects of our community, represent groups and have connections that we know we could leverage off of each other.”
Witt echoed that assessment, describing the three as bringing distinct backgrounds and expertise to the race but sharing a “common set of values.”
“We wanted to make a unified front because we’d rather that the three of us got on the board than having somebody else that we feel is very politically motivated getting on there,” Witt said.
For incumbents in two of Missoula’s high school districts, the 2022 election has produced challengers who have directly questioned the current board’s willingness to heed the concerns of parents. The decision last fall to maintain a universal masking policy in the district left opponents convinced they’d been ignored. Taylor Ramos said her challenge against incumbent Arlene Walker-Andrews arose from a desire to elevate those parental voices, adding that a parent is a child’s “number one cheerleader.”
“They’re entrusting the school system to provide their children with the highest-quality education that they can, and if they want to see exactly what’s being taught in the classroom or just what’s going on inside the school, they have that right as the parent of the child and also as the taxpayer who is paying for that education for their child,” Ramos said.
To a degree, Ramos and Walker-Andrews agree on the importance of listening to parents. Trustees don’t represent parents in quite the same way state lawmakers represent constituents, Walker-Andrews said, but they do have a responsibility to listen to parents, teachers and the public at large. Where the two diverge is on how much sway a single voice, however loud, should have. When it came to the district’s masking policy, Walker-Andrews said, she read every scientific paper she could find on the subject, and verified the statistics from one study in Arizona with a statistician at the University of Montana. She pored over all 521 comments submitted to the board, and found that more than three-quarters favored continuing the policy through the fall semester.
In addition to inspiring an electoral challenger, the masking debate also got Walker-Andrews thinking, within the context of her own campaign, about how to improve dialogue between the board and the public. But her short time on the school board has shown her that public comment periods at meetings don’t give trustees the opportunity to engage, and she expressed a desire to see the board host open listening sessions a few times a year.
“The people who are talking to us don’t know whether we’re listening or considering what they’re saying since we’re not responding at that moment,” Walker-Andrews said. “That, I think, is difficult for people.”
For as much as the 2022 school election is being influenced by the parental rights movement and its focus on hot-button issues such as masking and critical race theory, candidates on both sides tend to agree on end goals. They list similar elements in describing a quality public education, from encouraging parental engagement to preparing children to be responsible and productive members of society. How to get there is the question where these camps diverge, and the answer will ultimately hinge on a candidate’s — and a voter’s — own beliefs.
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