Whitefish school board recall effort is emblematic of bigger movement
(Daily Montanan) A campaign to recall all members of the Whitefish school board is underway, with supporters arguing trustees ignored parents’ constitutional rights by not allowing the “right of participation” when deciding to implement a mask mandate in the district for children not old enough to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Jenny Paatalo, a Whitefish parent who filed the recall petitions told the Daily Montanan while she did not agree with the board’s decision, she decided to launch the effort after becoming displeased with the board’s conduct and the process that led to the mask mandate for K-6 graders. Under the rules, Paatalo said her sixth-grade child is required to wear a mask, but her eighth-grade child is not — in the same building.
Since the board’s decision on Aug. 12, the Facebook group “Take Back Whitefish” has been promoting the recall, with Paatalo as one of the moderators, as has conservative news outlet the Montana Daily Gazette. Paatalo said interest on Facebook is high, but gathering the 2,391 required signatures for each petition in person has been difficult. Under Montana law, a separate recall petition is required for each trustee.
Even if petitioners meet the threshold by the Dec. 29 deadline, the following steps are unclear. The Flathead County Election officials told the Whitefish Pilot they have never dealt with a recall before and are taking the process step by step.
Montana School Boards Association director Lance Melton maintained Flathead County District Court still will need to determine if the petitions meet legal standards. In 25 years, Melton said he has never seen a recall presented to voters.
“(School board recalls) are very complicated and barely used,” Melton said.
Nonetheless, across the country, similar efforts have been growing. In 2021, there were 84 efforts to recall school boards, according to Ballotpedia. Of the 84, only eight have made it to ballots. But the previous high during the last 13 years was 38 recall attempts in 2010.
Even outside the scope of the recall, parents in Whitefish and the Flathead have been agitating against school boards and mask mandates. They did so with support from the highest elected school official in the state, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, and with encouragement from Moms for America, a group at the forefront of the “parental rights movement” whose president, Kimberly Fletcher, was involved in organizing “Stop the Steal” events and attended the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Last week, Arntzen spoke at a parental rights event in Missoula, where speakers vowed to unseat school board trustees in the upcoming election. At parental rights events, speakers encouraged anti-mask proponents to challenge or disregard school policies they disagree with.
“I work for every single child,” Arntzen, a Republican, told parents in Missoula. “But you’re their champion – government, is not it.”
Arntzen told the crowd of nearly 100 that she was drafting an administrative rule with Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen that would allow parents to opt out of school board rules. The superintendent, who earlier appeared at an anti-mask rally with parents in Billings, also said she had attended a Moms for America event in Alexandria, Virginia, one week earlier, and she was proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with those moms.
Travis McAdam, with the Montana Human Rights Network, said the parental rights movement isn’t new and has percolated amongst anti-government groups for years. The movement has resurfaced recently as frustrations mount over the pandemic and its restrictions. After the Montana Legislature took action to limit the power of local health boards, he said the fight to rally conservatives shifted to school boards.
McAdam is the director of combating white nationalism and defending Democracy at the Montana Human Rights Network and has been with the group for 20 years.
“Parental rights have become another tool to recruit community members to show up and protest mask mandates and other things,” McAdam said. “Extremist anti-government folks like Ammon Bundy have seized upon the pandemic as a divisive issue to come into communities and further the division and recruit new members.”
Bundy capitalized on the pandemic when he started the People’s Rights Network to fight back against public health measures being implemented by local health boards. The far-right anti-government group has grown by 53 percent to more than 33,000 members, according to a new report from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
Paatalo said she was not at the Moms for America meeting on Sept. 1 and said she has never heard of the group — but she supports parental rights.
“I think it’s funny even to call (parental rights) a movement. I think it’s almost just people asserting their natural positions in nature,” she said. “And when the government moves against it, I would say the government is the one with the movement, not us. We’re just kind of trying to hold our ground that we’ve had since the beginning of time.”
Paatalo said the recall came from her own frustrations with the school board meeting. She said she was upset the board did not allow for public comment during deliberation among trustees about the mask policy.
“I did it all by myself,” she said. “I just got really mad at that meeting, and I spent three weeks writing and researching.”
At the center of her frustration were comments from Whitefish School Board Trustee Jerrie Boksich, who she said misinterpreted survey results by saying she believes “strongly recommend” or “recommend” could fall in the “required” category or the “optional” category.
“If I’m strongly recommending something, that is what I am urging people to do; that’s what I want to happen,” Boksich said at the meeting, according to an audio recording shared with the Daily Montanan. “So, I guess, I look at this survey in a different way. I think strongly recommended can go down with mask required, just as much as it goes up with mask optional.”
In a survey of Whitefish families, more than half of the 832 responses favored a mask-optional policy.
The two employee unions in the district, the Whitefish Classified Employees Association and the Whitefish Education Association were also surveyed. Of the 24 respondents in the WCEA survey, 59 percent voted for an optional or recommended policy, while 41 percent voted for some requirement level. The WEA survey saw similar results, with 65 percent of the votes favoring an optional or recommended approach and 35 percent for some requirement level.
And in a survey of 106 staff who are not part of the two unions, there were 64 votes for an optional policy. The union surveys were the only two to feature a “strongly recommended policy,” while the family and non-union employee surveys only listed a “recommended” option.
“If my employer said to me, I recommend that you go and do such and so to me, that is not like it’s your option, so I think it’s kind of in-between, it could go with one side, or it could go with the other,” Boksich said in the recording.
But Paatalo disagreed with Boksich’s assertion that recommended could mean required just as much as it could mean optional. And she said she’s dismayed that none of the other board members voiced a concern either: “The rest of the board members sat there silent, and not a single one of them said ‘Hold on, I don’t think ‘recommend’ means the same as ‘required.’ Nobody pushed back on that strange narrative. And because of that, they were all sort of complicit.”
And Paatalo said in an email it’s not just about masks: “Masking is only the subject matter. Subject matters will come and go. For a board to conduct itself in this manner … lacks the basic integrity required of a politician.”
In a unanimous vote, the board opted to require masks for students, staff, and visitors in K-6 and recommend face coverings for grades 7-12, according to the minutes. The board also made allowances for extenuating circumstances, such as a potential or actual COVID-19 outbreak.
“If face coverings are optional and the number of active COVID-19 cases in Flathead County increase to the point of threatening school closures, the Board of Trustees authorizes the superintendent to implement a requirement for face coverings to be worn in identified District buildings until such time as the Board of Trustees can adopt an applicable district requirement,” the policy said. “The superintendent shall coordinate with the county health department and Board Chair to determine whether face coverings are a necessary response to a potential or actual COVID-19 outbreak.”
Paatalo also said the board, in failing to allow for public comment after Boksich interpreted the survey results, violated Montana’s Constitutional Right of Participation. It states, “the public has the right to expect governmental agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies prior to the final decision.”
But Trustee Todd Lengacher told the Daily Montanan the board took a myriad of information into account from a variety of sources, including hours of public comment, letters, advice from medical experts, and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — in addition to the survey results — in making its decision to mandate masks for K-6 graders.
“For me, the important thing out of that survey is that it was a clear indication that there was a wide set of opinions in our community,” Lengacher said. “But no one piece of evidence swayed us one way or another.”
Lengacher said he also disagrees with the allegations that there was not a reasonable opportunity for citizen participation: “The challenge here is that so few people engage with school boards, so there is a lack of understanding of how school boards work and how to engage with them.”
In fact, members of the public did comment at the meeting, even though they didn’t have the chance to do so after the motion to require masks was under consideration. During the meeting, trustees heard input from 41 members of the public.
Many of those speaking in favor of a mask mandate asked the trustees to listen to medical experts, but Paatalo was among those who alleged the masks could be harmful. In his comments about the masking policy, Matt Niel called the school board trustees “bullies and narcissists,” and he said that he’d decide on masks for his kids himself, according to meeting minutes.
A first-term board member, Lengacher has spent 20 years as an educator and served on multiple other boards throughout his career but has not seen so much contention around a single topic as he has with masks.
“My concerns being on a public school board right now are how we as a civilization are treating each other and working through differences, and that is playing out at the local level in some unpleasant ways,” he said. “Zeroing in on the mask issue has moved away from even being about masks to being about freedom.”
He said he understands the frustration coming from parents, but he would like the tone of discussions to be less strident: “They feel powerless in some way around their child’s wellbeing, and I will never begrudge a parent for standing up for their child, but how we are doing it is not the most productive way.”
Trustee Shannon Hanson also said that being under the watchful eye of citizens is part of the job, and he welcomes efforts to hold school boards accountable to the law. But he said he does not believe the board did anything to warrant a recall.
“Making the final decision on this matter is exclusively the responsibility and purview of the board as a whole,” Hanson said in an email. “While I welcome spirited debate, I denounce in the strongest manner violent or abusive rhetoric of any sort. I abhor personal attacks, whether verbal or otherwise, against my fellow trustees.”
Some school board members that spoke with the Daily Montanan said they have received offensive messages but nothing that has escalated to the point of violent threats. Minutes from the August meeting also do not show any violent threats lobbed at the board.
Last week in Missoula, however, a suggestion to “shoot” superintendents by a lawyer who said he was making a play on words in a joke elicited strong statements of condemnation both from Missoula County Public Schools and Superintendent Arntzen.
Still, Cherilyn DeVries, who attended the Moms for American meeting, said Arntzen’s participation fortified the idea that anti-mask parents have the right to refuse to abide by mask mandates in schools. DeVries is the director of Love Lives Here, an anti-discrimination group in the Flathead and part of the Montana Human Rights Network.
“When you have the State Superintendent of Public Schools encouraging parents to organize against school board decisions, it’s alarming. People are already feeling emboldened to claim their rights are being violated when they don’t agree with decisions by elected officials,” DeVries said.
She called the efforts “a very strategic way to justify attacks on elected officials and muddle the issue.”
Arntzen also is not the state’s only elected official to weigh in on the power struggle between parents and school boards. On Aug. 31, Gov. Greg Gianforte issued emergency guidance urging school boards to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates.
His office also published a series of essays that cast doubt on the wide body of research that has shown the efficacy of Masking. State epidemiologists would later say the move by the governor’s office spread misinformation.
After the vote in Whitefish, a profile with an apparent stock photo for a profile picture that does not appear to exist anymore posted the addresses of all the school board members to the Whitefish United Facebook page. The post called the mask mandate policy “…a power grab, by an overbearing school board.” McAdam said posting home addresses of public officials is a move used by anti-government groups to intimidate public officials.
Lengacher, though, said he had no problem with his address being posted online but had issues with part of the intention, which he said he believes was to make school more members’ lives more difficult.
He also said he understood what he was signing up for: “Part of our job is to make difficult decisions, and those decisions will be met with disconnect and disagreement, and that is part of the work.”
As in many communities struggling with the COVID pandemic, the situation in Whitefish has turned neighbor against neighbor, exacerbating political differences.
McAdam said the recall effort is a continuation of efforts started during the pandemic by anti-government groups to spread misinformation and sow distrust in local government.
“The goal is control, and when it comes to schools, it is about deconstructing an institution that they have not liked for a long time,” he said.
So far, Paatalo said she has collected at least around 250 signatures, and it’s an uphill battle to gather them in person despite the enthusiasm she has sensed on social media. Her deadline f0r all seven petitions is Dec. 29, and she said she’ll continue to circulate the petitions in Whitefish. In Missoula, participants at the meeting this week also discussed gathering again to continue their plans to elect members of their parental rights movement to the school board.
The pandemic is in its 20th month, and so far, 14,003 children aged 0 to 11 have been infected with COVID-19, with 58 of them needing to be hospitalized, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. There have been no deaths in the age group. Some parents have reported their children are “long haulers,” experiencing serious symptoms, such as heart problems and the inability to read due to vertigo, for weeks.