Seating was at a premium in the Bozeman Public Library’s community meeting room April 18. Dozens of people — parents, children, concerned community members — packed into rows of chairs. Several more stood against the walls, arms crossed, attentive. For nearly an hour and a half, they listened as a panel of four candidates vying for two seats on Bozeman’s public school board fielded questions about critical race theory, the condition of the district’s budget, and the impacts of community growth and dwindling affordability on public education.
The forum, sponsored by Bozeman’s League of Women Voters, clicked along with an air of civility and restraint. Save for a few charged questions from the audience, which moderator and LWV board member Sally Maison did her best to temper with a strict time limit on queries from the crowd, the evening stood out as a quiet reflection of the intense focus voters in 2022 have on the elected bodies charged with overseeing their communities’ schools.
Inspired by their opposition to masking last fall, a slate of candidates have set their sights on Missoula County’s public school board. But a separate camp is fighting to resist the parental rights agenda and steer the conversation back to the board’s long-standing mission.
Last fall’s school masking debate in Billings inspired a coalition of candidates to vie for control of the nonpartisan public school board. But COVID issues aren’t the only factors turning the 2022 election political.
Tanya Reinhardt, an incumbent running to retain the seat she first won in 2016, said past school elections in Bozeman have hardly been devoid of candidate interest. During her first unsuccessful bid for the board in 2015, six candidates were in contention for three trustee positions. She measures the increased profile of the election not so much in the presence of yard signs but in the number of them. Where in the past she may have seen 30 candidate signs around town, she told Montana Free Press, she’s now seeing 100. She wondered aloud in the interview whether the heightened attention paid to the races will have an impact come May 3 — Election Day.
“Generally it’s been teachers that would predominantly vote [in school board elections],” Reinhardt said. “I think we can expect that more people are potentially going to vote in this. I think that’s going to be really interesting to see because we usually have such a poor voter turnout for school elections.”
Lauren Dee, who’s running for the board for the first time, echoed Reinhardt’s assessment of the election’s physical presence in Bozeman. The first 100 yards signs she purchased for her campaign in mid-March were “gone instantly,” she said, and she quickly doled out another batch. It’s gotten to the point, she continued, where she’s “turning people away.”
“People just wanted to show support and that they back education and that they were doing their research and that this means a lot to them,” said Dee, who along with Reinhardt is endorsed by the Bozeman Education Association.
Crowded school board races, thousands of dollars in contributions to candidates, intense debates over divisive, politicized topics — this is the reality that’s come to define the spring election cycle in 2022. MTFP has already examined how school elections are playing out in Missoula and Billings, and how the parental rights movement feeds into the narrative. But districts large and small across the state, from Great Falls and Helena to Whitefish and Livingston, are also mirroring a nationwide trend in the lead-up to May 3.
The root of that activity in Bozeman is no different than in most other places in Montana or the nation. The district’s mask mandate inflamed community passions last fall and placed the board’s deliberations under a microscope. A proposed equity policy stirred a similar backlash in 2021 based on perceived ties to critical race theory, and one member of a local parental rights group, Stand Up Montana, demanded the resignations of Superintendent Casey Bertram and all but two board members in February over alleged violations of personal rights. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Stand Up Montana member, Chellese Stamson, threatened to file claims against the district’s liability insurance totalling millions of dollars if they didn’t comply. No one resigned, and no such claims were filed. The episode, which Stamson briefly resurrected in a question to the candidates at the April 18 forum, paralleled a string of similar tactics employed against school boards across the country. National news outlets characterized the parental rights movement’s actions as “spreading confusion” and “intimidating school boards.”
For the most part, the candidates in Bozeman have steered clear of such politicized issues, preferring to focus on their personal experiences in the public education system and the insights they’ve gained as a result.
Dee, a former educator in a two-room schoolhouse north of Bozeman, said her interest in taking on an oversight role was piqued after serving on a committee that reshaped the Bozeman district’s high school boundaries in 2019. Fellow first-time candidate Amber Jupka chalks her motivation up to her involvement with Bozeman’s Meadowlark Elementary Parent Advisory Council and her volunteer work as a substitute teacher, cashier and paraprofessional in multiple schools in recent years. The latter role, she said, underscored for her the immense staffing challenges Bozeman schools are facing, as well as the limits of relying on volunteerism to fill those staffing gaps.
“We’re not able to get the young teachers because we don’t have affordable housing, but then the teachers that are in our communities are getting burned out because we don’t have people to help them,” Jupka said. “Temporarily we can use parents and community members to come in and help us with some of that support area. But that’s not something that can go on forever, because you need to have some of these certified people in there.”
Lisa Weaver, an incumbent trustee campaigning to keep the seat she was appointed to last June, concurs with Jupka’s staffing concern. The district currently has more than 100 openings for teachers, Weaver said, and she sees Bozeman’s affordability woes and the heated local political climate as the primary factors driving teachers away. Young families are finding it difficult to afford sticking around too, she continued, which could have serious implications for school enrollment. The situation has led her to cast a critical eye at some of the budget decisions her fellow trustees have made and speculate whether there are more direct initiatives the board could pursue, such as housing allowances for teachers.
“We have caps on what salary can be paid, and we’ve met those caps,” Weaver said. “There’s not a lot we can do with that as far as the general budget goes. But is there something else that we could do where we could take monies and apply them to the general budget? I don’t know. I’m being told no, but I don’t agree with that.”
Weaver comes closest of any of the candidates to staking a strong opinion on one of the touchier issues at play in school board elections across the state. The issue she finds most concerning, she said, is the sexualization of children. In her view, sex education should focus on biology and abstinence. More specific conversations about sexual activity or gender identity should be the purview of parents, Weaver said, not the public school system. She acknowledges that she’s received “a lot of pushback” over her stance, a reaction that speaks to what she believes is the broader force behind school board competitiveness in 2022.
“I see it as a tug of war over the hearts and minds of our kids,” Weaver said. “I think everybody’s contending for what they believe is best for kids, but there are some very different views on what is best for kids.”
Indeed, putting the interests of public school children first is the primary goal expressed by all four of Bozeman’s school board candidates. Their paths toward that goal may diverge at some points and intersect at others, but the candidates share a desire to pull the community along, build consensus and foster engagement in the areas where increased involvement can prove constructive. That desire is mingled with a longing for civility and a hope that, as divisive as certain issues in public education have become in recent years, increased interest among Bozeman voters might translate to positive and lasting participation. As contentious as the masking debate was at times last year, Reinhardt said, she appreciated the opportunity to expose hundreds of people drawn in by that issue to discussions about other school policies.
“Realizing the importance of people staying informed and involved I think is really important,” Reinhardt said. “I love the fact that parents are paying more attention potentially to what’s in their kids’ backpacks. I’ve always thought that was crucial and critical. And I want them to continue to have conversations with teachers and administrators and really know what’s going on.”
A state district court judge in Missoula has blocked Montana’s ban on medical care for minors with gender dysphoria from taking effect while a lawsuit over its constitutionality continues, finding that the new law appears to have “no rational relationship to protecting children.”
Missoula’s leaders, struggling with their own complex homelessness issues, are likely to view Bozeman’s tenuous approval of an urban camping ordinance as a green light to move forward with restricting the same activity.
The Montana Supreme Court upheld Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s decision to block a proposed ballot initiative that could have asked Montana voters to place a hard cap on property tax collections next year.