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Jim Riley’s phone rang around 6 a.m. the day after most of the school board candidates he’d supported lost their bids to be public school trustees.
Riley, co-founder of an organization “seeking to ensure a constitutional future,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen was on the phone. She apologized for the early call, he said, but she offered her perspective on the outcomes at the ballot boxes.
“We are just beginning to rise up as parents and community members to get out there and play a role in the process,” said Riley of the encouragement from the second-term Republican head of the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
But Moffie Funk was celebrating last week as well. Funk, head of Montanans Organized For Education, or MOFE PAC, said her organization backed 21 candidates, and it counted 17 sure wins in major cities in Montana. One candidate in Billings, Brian Yates, is two votes down against John VonLangen with any provisional ballots to be counted Monday afternoon.
“One of the most encouraging aspects of the results of the school board elections is that it proves without a doubt that Montanans trust their teachers, their public school teachers, and school boards to do the best things for their children,” said Funk, also a retired teacher and outgoing Democratic legislator.
During the pandemic, political divisions long evident in higher profile races trickled to local school board elections and took their own shape. The fight about mask mandates in schools and the rights of parents played out at the same time candidates debated critical race theory and books about LGBTQ people.
In one way, the debate represents the evolution of an ongoing tension, said political analyst Lee Banville, of the University of Montana. In other words, the state is teaching children something that some parents find objectionable, he said, such as creationism more than a decade ago.
“But I will also say that this election is happening at hopefully the tail end of one of the most divisive policy fights about education we’ve seen, and it has almost nothing to do with education and everything to do with public health versus freedom,” said Banville, a UM School of Journalism professor.
People who lost will argue the election is the beginning of “a brushfire of populist frustration” with public education that is only going to get hotter, Banville said. But he said awareness of the controversial topics of the day was high, and he doesn’t know if in a year or two, people will be as moved over, say, masking.
“You could really argue this was the moment for them to win if they’re going to win,” Banville said.
Funk said this year was the first MOFE raised money for school board trustees. She said she founded MOFE in 2019 as just an advocacy group, but after the 2020 election, she realized the organization needed to be more active so she also formed the Political Action Committee.
“We have a governor, an attorney general, and superintendent of public education all of whom support privatizing and using public funds to support private institutions,” Funk said.
In just four and a half weeks, she said MOFE PAC raised nearly $90,000 to support candidates in Missoula, Helena, Butte, Great Falls, Bozeman and Billings. She said teachers associations in each of those cities interviewed candidates, and MOFE PAC backed their endorsements; she noted money did not come from union dues but from voluntary contributions from people’s paychecks.
Their candidates won just two out of four races in Great Falls, but they claimed seats in three of four races in Billings; two out of two in both Bozeman and Butte; three out three in Helena; and five out of six in Missoula.
“We got into it late, and that’s why it’s so amazing,” Funk said.
Riley, on the other hand, said some of his candidates had very little money, in one case, just $400 compared to an opponent with a couple thousand dollars. He said union dollars buoyed candidates on the other side, which he considers unfair, but his phone was ringing even after the losses, and the superintendent wasn’t the only caller. (She was likely among the first, but Riley is an early riser: “I was thrilled to get the call from her despite the time.”)
“I don’t sense any slowdown,” said Riley, himself a trustee for the Smith Valley School in Kalispell. “Obviously, there’s light levels of discouragement. People like to win. That doesn’t always happen.”
He estimated that just one-third of the 41 school board candidates he supported won their races across Montana, although he didn’t have a precise figure Friday. His organization, The 1776 Syndicate, helps candidates in various elections in Montana, such as for county commission, but he also said more people have started seeing the importance of public school boards and the role the community plays in them, and his candidates will run again.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle, but when you look at just the enthusiasm for these parents to run without the necessary funds to do it, it just shows their grit and determination to be involved,” Riley said.
Banville, the political analyst, agreed the race was as much about union organization as it was about parents rights: “It’s easy to point to the parents’ rights folks and say, ‘Oh, they’re trying to politicize the process,’ but the unions are also aggressively defending certain positions as well.”
This time, he said the unions played defense, and they won. They not only raised money, he said, they convinced people to vote for their candidates.
“They didn’t mess around,” Banville said. “You saw a very concerted public employee response, and that was effective. They were actively involved in making sure that parental frustration did not turn into a radically different school administration throughout the state.”
Although the school boards garnered more attention this year, in reality, new candidates come on board every year, said Lance Melton, head of the Montana School Boards Association. Some trustees stay on 10, 15, even 30 years, but every year, 250 to 300 new trustees rotate onto the boards out of 1,500 or so.
This time, he’d like to see a shift: “We’re going to all work toward getting back to a focus on learning and get away from the division over masks and other mandates,” Melton said. “Hopefully, that will remain something that stays in the past.”
In the present, trustees on all sides of the hot button items will face different issues. Missoula County Public Schools Trustee Grace Decker, who has pointed out that many school board members already are parents, despite some of the rhetoric, said the public conversation about schools and school boards has been about divisive issues, but the work of trustees mostly isn’t. She pointed to an upcoming agenda.
“I hope the incoming trustees are ready for really being involved in the business of their school district,” Decker said. “For example, on our agenda Tuesday, we will be asked to approve a new ventilation system for the welding room at one of our high schools. That’s literally what’s on the agenda.”
In Missoula, Trustee Mike Gehl, who was appointed in 2021 and worked to rally more parents to run for the school boards, lost his race. Gehl could not be reached for comment Friday via phone calls and a voicemail about his future plans.
At a November meeting he helped organize in Missoula to support parental rights, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen sympathized with parents she said weren’t being listened to, and Gehl said he was frustrated enough to pull his own children out of public school.
In January, the Missoulian reported that the local school board closed a meeting after just four minutes because Gehl would not wear a mask as required for in person attendance.
Tensions have run high at school board meetings across Montana, and Moffie Funk, with Montanans Organized For Education, or MOFE, said inciting division should not be a part of school board meetings. MOFE PAC support Gehl’s opponent, Rob Woelich, who won in Missoula.
“The discourtesy and disrespect do not belong in our public school environment,” Funk said.
At the time, Gehl told the Missoulian he was not required to mask up: “If you could state a state code that I’m obligated to follow, I would be more than happy to follow that, but I’m not bound by any state statute whatsoever.”
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