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Several weeks ago, I sat down in three different coffee shops with three different Missoula school board candidates, eager to learn from them why each had decided to run for a position that, frankly, hasn’t garnered much electoral interest in the past. They all expressed a distinct personal motivation, a distinct list of concerns and goals. But a common theme emerged: They wanted to do what they felt was best for the city’s kids.

You may have asked yourself this month, “Why is a statewide news outlet like Montana Free Press writing about local school board elections in MissoulaBillings and Bozeman?” I could tell you that the staggering amount of interest in those elections made the coverage inevitable, or that the culture war debates sweeping through schools across Montana and the country were what clinched it. Heck, after covering the tense U.S. Senate showdown in 2012, the special Congressional election in 2017 and the heated legislative primaries of 2020, maybe I just craved that electric rush of election reporting.

The real answer, though, is that I thought a lot about it this spring. Over the past year, I’ve interviewed rural Montana teachers about their struggles to obtain state certification. I’ve talked to parental rights activists about their concerns over what’s being taught in schools, and to educators and experts who challenge the movement’s assertions. I’ve spoken with lawmakers and state officials whose job it is to provide access to a quality public education in this state. Nine times out of ten, sources have reminded me how much of Montana’s public education system rests on local control, and that makes the post of school board trustee a darned powerful one.

I heard the same sentiments expressed by those Missoula candidates echoed in interviews with candidates elsewhere. I also heard a near-universal recognition that while the best interests of students come first, a candidate’s personal belief in how to serve those interests can vary wildly. It’s a prime example of why connecting dots is so important, and such a vital function of solid community journalism. Truly understanding how a movement might shape an influential elected body only comes from understanding what drives the individuals within that movement to action. The May 3 school board elections may give Montanans better insight into the culture war’s hold on voters, but judging from my coffee-fueled conversations this month, the results will hardly be the final dot to connect.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“The cheap food policy of the United States government has been extraordinarily successful. It’s hollowed out rural America all the way from Grass Range, Montana, to Lumpkin, Georgia. I was told not to use this word; I’m sorry, but I can’t think of another word. Rural America is one huge slum, and this is a result of the lack of antitrust enforcement and the way we’ve elected to conduct rural and agricultural policies through the Farm Bills.”

Gilles Stockton, a Grass Range rancher speaking to the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in an April 27 hearing about discrepancies, price transparency and alleged unfair practices in cattle markets. Stockton testified about consolidation in the meatpacking industry on behalf of Northern Plains Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Jim Dunnigan, dam mitigation coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, carries a fresh supply of fish onto the data collection boat during an electrofishing trip on the Kootenai River. Dunnigan is proposing an experiment to add fertilizer to the river to correct a nutrient imbalance that is contributing to blooms of didymo algae, colloquially known as “rock snot,” that appears to be negatively impacting the fishery. University of Montana journalism student Bowman Leigh reported on the project for Montana Free Press this week.

Brad Tyer, Editor

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of public comments on new teacher licensing regulations Montana’s Board of Public Education reviewed Thursday. During the meeting, the board systematically voted to agree or disagree with commenters who weighed in on a wide range of proposed rule changes impacting the types of educator licenses available in the state, the requirements to obtain those licenses and the process to resolve individual disputes over licensing issues. Reviewing the comments, which were submitted between January and April, was one of the board’s final steps toward adopting the new regulations next month.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Viz 📈

April storms have beefed up previously lackluster snow accumulations in many parts of Montana, rescuing snowpack in some basins from levels earlier this month that were at or near record lows. 

When we last checked in on snowpack the first week of April, for example, the Gallatin River basin around Bozeman had only three-quarters of its typical snowpack. Things are looking a bit better as the month comes to a close, according to data from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, with Bozeman-area drainages at 86% of median snowpack for the date as of April 28.

For those curious about the snowpack progression in other parts of the state, you can pull up similar charts for other Montana basins here.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Quiz ✅

It’s your last chance to test your listening skills on Season 2 of our Shared State podcast.* Anyone who sends in correct answers to the three questions below will be entered to win MTFP swag: hats, mugs, sweaters and more. Let’s get started on questions for the season’s final episode. 

Episode 8: The politics of death and dying

  1. What Billings man filed a lawsuit that eventually allowed medical aid in dying to be practiced in Montana?  
  2. How many other states permitted medical aid in dying because of a court case, rather than a law or a ballot initiative?
  3. Since 2009, how many times have bills criminalizing medical aid in dying failed to pass through the state legislature?

Submit your answers using this form by 5 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday, May 2, and we’ll randomly select one winner from the correct entries to send some sweet MTFP gear. Special shout out to Thomas from Missoula, winner of last week’s quiz!

*Yes, we know, there are transcripts available to just look up the answers. We trust you to listen first and verify later. Have fun!

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert —  The two-decade saga over the management of Canada lynx reached another milestone this week when the government and environmental groups reached an agreement about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s strategy for issuing critical habitat designations. The Associated Press reported on what that could mean for land management in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

Alex Sakariassen — Despite the culture war debates raging in public education spheres across America, results of a national poll released this week indicate that three-quarters of parents believe their kids’ schools are keeping them well informed about lesson plans — even potentially controversial ones. The poll, conducted by National Public Radio and market research company Ipsos, also found that while students are rebounding from the impacts of the pandemic, parents remain concerned about the long-term effects on their childrens’ mental health.

Eric Dietrich — Why are Americans so sour on the nation’s allegedly booming economy? This wide-angle piece from Time magazine articulates an answer around “three H’s” that are increasingly hellish burdens for middle class families: housing, health care, and higher education.

Mara Silvers — I took a vacation last week and, therefore, spent most of this week trying to get my head back into the Montana news cycle. Luckily for me, plenty of outlets around the state haven’t been taking a day off. The Flathead Beacon delivered two very helpful summaries about the Republican and Democratic debates/forums hosted over the last two weeks for congressional candidates in Montana’s newly created Western district. Don’t miss them. 

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.