Seating was sparse in the community meeting room at the Bozeman Public Library on April 18. Dozens of people – parents, children, concerned community members – crowded into rows of chairs. Several others stood against the walls, arms crossed, attentive. For nearly an hour and a half, they listened to a panel of four candidates vying for two seats on the Bozeman Public School Board answer questions about critical race theory, the state of the district’s budget and the impacts community growth and diminishing public accessibility. education.
The forum, sponsored by the Bozeman League of Women Voters, clicked with an air of civility and restraint. With the exception of a few crowd-laden questions, which moderator and LWV board member Sally Maison did her best to temper with a strict time limit for questions from the crowd, the evening went smoothly. singled out as a silent reflection of the intense focus of voters in 2022 on elected bodies charged with overseeing schools in their communities.
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Tanya Reinhardt, the incumbent to retain the seat she first won in 2016, said the school board elections passed in Bozeman had hardly been devoid of interest for the candidates. In his first unsuccessful bid for the board in 2015, six candidates were vying for three directorships. She measures the heightened profile of the election not so much by the presence of road signs as by their number. Where in the past she may have seen 30 signs of candidates in the city, she told Montana Free Press, now she sees 100. She wondered aloud in the interview if the heightened focus on racing will impact May 3 – election day.
“Generally, it is the teachers who vote the majority [in school board elections]”, Reinhardt said. “I think we can expect more people to potentially vote in this area. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see because we usually have such a low turnout in school elections. . »
Lauren Dee, who is running for the board for the first time, echoed Reinhardt’s assessment of the election’s physical presence in Bozeman. The first 100-meter signs she bought for her campaign in mid-March “disappeared instantly”, she said, and she quickly handed out another batch. It got to the point, she continued, where she “pushes people down.”
“People just wanted to show their support and that they supported education and they did their research and it meant 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 candidate contributions, intense debates over controversial and politicized topics – this is the defining reality of the spring 2022 election cycle. in Missoula and Billings, and how the parental rights movement informs the narrative. But districts large and small across the state, from Great Falls and Helena to Whitefish and Livingston, also reflect a national trend as May 3 approaches.
The root of this activity in Bozeman is no different than most other places in Montana or the country. The district’s mask mandate ignited community passions last fall and put the council’s deliberations under a microscope. A proposed equity policy drew a similar backlash in 2021 based on perceived links to critical race theory, and a member of local parenting rights group Stand Up Montana demanded the resignation. Superintendent Casey Bertram and all but two board members in February for alleged human rights abuses. Tk According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Stand Up Montana member Chellese Stamson has threatened to file claims against district liability insurance totaling millions of dollars if they don’t comply. No one resigned and no such claims were filed. The episode, which Stamson briefly resurrected in a question to candidates at the April 18 forum, paralleled a series of similar tactics employed against school boards across the country. National media called the actions of the parental rights movement “sowing confusion” and “intimidating school boards.”
For the most part, Bozeman’s candidates avoided these politicized questions, preferring to focus on their personal experiences in the public education system and the knowledge they gained as a result.
Dee, a former educator at a two-room schoolhouse north of Bozeman, said her interest in taking on a supervisory role was piqued after serving on a committee that reshaped the Bozeman District High School’s boundaries in 2019. First-time contestant 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 at several schools over the years. last years. The latter role, she said, underscored for her the immense staffing challenges facing Bozeman schools, as well as the limitations of relying on volunteers to fill those staffing gaps.
“We can’t recruit young teachers because we don’t have affordable housing, but teachers in our communities are burning out because we don’t have anyone to help them,” Jupka said. “Temporarily, we can ask parents and community members to come and help us with some of this area of support. But it’s not something that can last forever, because you have to have some of those people certified there.
Lisa Weaver, an outgoing administrator who is campaigning to keep the seat to which she was appointed last June, agrees with Jupka’s staffing concerns. The district currently has more than 100 openings for teachers, Weaver said, and she sees Bozeman’s affordability issues and the heated local political climate as the biggest factors keeping teachers away. Young families also find it difficult to afford to stay, she continued, which could have serious consequences for schooling. The situation has caused her to take a critical look at some of the budget decisions made by her fellow trustees and wonder if there are more direct initiatives the board could pursue, such as housing allowances for teachers.
“We have caps on the salary that can be paid, and we hit those caps,” Weaver said. “There is not much we can do with this as far as the general budget is concerned. But is there anything else we could do where we could take funds and apply them to the general budget? I do not know. They tell me no, but I don’t agree with that.
Weaver comes closest to either candidate for having a strong opinion on one of the most sensitive issues at stake in school board elections across the state. The issue she finds most concerning, she said, is the sexualization of children. According to her, sex education should focus on biology and abstinence. More specific conversations about sexual activity or gender identity should be up to parents, Weaver said, not the public school system. She acknowledges that she has received “a lot of backlash” about her position, a backlash that speaks to what she believes is the larger force behind school board competitiveness in 2022.
“I see it as a tussle in the hearts and minds of our children,” Weaver said. “I think everyone is fighting for what they believe is best for children, but there are very different views on what is best for children.”
Indeed, putting the interests of public school children first is the primary goal expressed by the four candidates for the Bozeman School Board. Their paths to this goal may diverge at times and intersect at others, but the candidates share a desire to engage the community, build consensus, and foster engagement in areas where increased involvement can be helpful. turn out to be constructive. That desire is intertwined with a desire for civility and the hope that, controversial as some public education issues have become in recent years, heightened interest among Bozeman voters could translate into positive and lasting turnout. As contentious as the masking debate has been at times over the past year, Reinhardt said, she appreciated the opportunity to expose hundreds of people drawn to this issue to discussions about other school policies.
“I think it’s really important to realize the importance of people staying informed and involved,” Reinhardt said. “I love that parents are potentially paying more attention 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 let them really know what is going on.