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Over the past few months, hot-button debates about public education have fueled a busy and at times overtly politicized school board election season in Montana. Candidates throughout the state translated their frustrations over pandemic-era masking policies, lessons on race and gender, and a broader perception of eroding parental rights into concerted bids for elected authority. Incumbents suddenly faced challengers for seats that previously attracted scant candidate interest, and some newcomers rose to counter the campaigns of people critical of the current state of affairs at their local schools.

All that came to a head Tuesday as election officials and school districts began to tally the ballots cast in Montana’s 2022 school elections. The results remain unofficial until they’re canvassed and certified by the appropriate local authority — in some cases the school board, in others the county commission. But based on information from the state’s seven largest districts Wednesday, it appears that candidates aligned with or sympathetic to the parental rights movement have made limited gains in claiming a controlling voice in local school decisions, giving Montanans a better sense of where the movement’s issues did and did not resonate with voters.

Billings

According to unofficial results posted by the Yellowstone County Elections Office after 8 p.m. Tuesday, 18,270 votes were cast across four contested Billings school board races. Incumbents Zach Terakedis and Scott McCulloch, both endorsed by the Billings Education Association, held on to their seats by narrow margins against challengers endorsed by local grassroots group Make Masking Optional. BEA-endorsed candidate Teresa Larsen also claimed victory in the race to replace outgoing school board chair Greta Besch Moen. As of Wednesday morning, Make Masking Optional-endorsed candidate John VonLangen had a two-vote lead over BEA-endorsed incumbent Brian Yates.

Voters cast nearly 39,900 ballots in school elections across Yellowstone County — a turnout rate comparable to past peak years, likely driven by crowded school board races in other Yellowstone County districts as well as a string of levy and bond proposals.

Bozeman

Unofficial results from Gallatin County Wednesday morning showed a total of 25,586 votes cast in the Bozeman Public Schools’ four-candidate race for two trustee positions. Incumbent Tanya Reinhardt and candidate Lauren Dee, both endorsed by the Bozeman Education Association, won by wide margins over Amber Jupka and incumbent trustee Lisa Weaver. The total number of ballots counted in school elections across Gallatin County was 25,703, roughly 2,000 ballots fewer than in the 2021 school election

Missoula

Based on a final election night report by the Missoula County Elections Office, two incumbents on the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees were ousted Tuesday. Challenger Karen Sherman, who advocated for greater transparency and budget accountability in the public school system during her campaign and signed a letter applauding state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s defense of parental rights last fall, defeated nine-year board veteran Ann Wake for one of three contested high school district seats. And challenger Rob Woelich, a flight instructor and FAA aviation safety inspector, defeated 2021 board appointee Michael Gehl, a vocal opponent of the district’s masking policy last fall and an author of the letter defending Arntzen. The unofficial results also showed incumbent Arlene Walker-Andrews holding a narrow 75-vote lead over challenger Taylor Ramos Tuesday night.

A trio of candidates endorsed by the Missoula school employees’ unions claimed victory in the crowded seven-candidate race for three elementary district seats. Incumbent Wilena Old Person led that contest with 12,249 votes, followed closely by Keegan Witt and Meg Whicher. Combined, those three claimed more than half the votes cast in the race — 34,407 of 47,671-vote total. Overall, voters cast 31,672 ballots across Missoula County’s 2022 school elections; that total is lower than the number of votes cast in the elementary district race because voters were asked to vote for three of the seven candidates in that race.

Great Falls

Great Falls was no stranger to the crowded races and politically tinted campaign messages witnessed elsewhere in Montana this spring . Unofficial results from the Cascade County Elections Office Tuesday night showed a mix of victors emerging from a seven-candidate race for three board seats. Two incumbent trustees in that contest — Gordon Johnson and Mark Finnicum — were elected to retain their seats. Meanwhile, newcomer Paige Turoski, who touted improving student proficiency and promoting trades-based education among her campaign goals, ousted 2021 board appointee Nathan Reiff. Amie Thompson, who advocated for transparency, student success and support for teachers during her campaign, led the field in a separate race for a one-year term on the board. As of Tuesday night, 13,164 ballots had been processed in Cascade County.

Kalispell

Kalispell Public Schools tallied a total of 14,288 ballots cast in its 2022 school election Tuesday. In a press release early Wednesday morning, Superintendent Micah Hill expressed disappointment in the failure of a $1.5 million high school general fund levy and shared the results from the district’s two school board elections. In a four-way race for two elementary district seats, early childhood education advocate Jennifer Sevier led the field with 3,214, followed by incumbent Ursula Wilde with 2,822. According to the unofficial results, parental rights advocate Lloyd Bondy had a 20-vote lead over incumbent Mark Kornick in their contest for a high school district seat.

The election also settled a late-breaking issue involving the candidacy of Steven Biggs. As the Flathead Beacon reported this week, the Kalispell Public Schools deemed Biggs ineligible to serve as an elementary trustee due to his home address being outside the district. Biggs trailed Sevier and Wilde by more than 400 votes. 

Helena

In Helena, eight candidates squared off this spring for three seats on the district’s board of trustees, with at least one, Robert Durrant, taking an outspoken stand against critical race theory and the district’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to unofficial results posted by the Lewis and Clark County Elections Office Tuesday, Kay Satre, a professor at Carroll College’s Department of Language and Literature, led the crowded field with 8,096 votes. Incumbent trustee Siobhan Hathhorn came in second and Lois Fitzpatrick, a professor emeritus at Carroll College, rounded out the race in third. The total number of ballots cast in the county’s school elections tallied 18,066, roughly 2,000 more than were cast in 2021.

Butte

In Butte, seven candidates vied for two open seats on the school district’s board of trustees in a single race this spring, a field that included two candidates who told the Montana Standard they were drawn to the race as a way to elevate the voices of parents. According to results shared via email by Kevin Patrick, business manager for the Butte School District, retired Butte teacher Kathy Milodragovich was elected with the most votes, and incumbent trustee Kelly Lee retained his seat with the second-highest vote count. Asked how voter turnout in the district’s 2022 election compared to past years, Patrick wrote that turnout was the same as in 2021: 35%.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...