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The Billings school board election gets political

Wooden classroom desks
iStockphoto.com
Wooden classroom desks

Over the course of four hours on Jan. 24, the Billings School Board tackled a range of issues that any viewer of the virtual meeting might have considered routine, even mundane. Trustees discussed potential adjustments to career and technical education at the high school level, and deliberated about extending the district’s lease on a facility housing its early childhood intervention services. But the bulk of the meeting — roughly three hours — centered on a single agenda item: the requested removal of two books from high school libraries.

The books — an autobiographical novel called “Lawn Boy” and the graphic-novel-style memoir “Gender Queer” — had become flashpoints elsewhere in the country as far back as last fall. Members of Montana’s self-styled parental rights movement objected to what they considered inappropriate or obscene content in both books, and the removal challenge by a Billings parent ushered the national controversy onto the trustees’ agenda. They heard from concerned parents and advocates on both sides of the question, some voicing the same objections raised in Texas and Virginia and others urging the board to defend LGBTQ inclusivity by keeping the books.

After half an hour of internal debate, the board voted unanimously to retain both books.

That episode is one of a growing number that have come to define the school board election in Billings this spring. Three incumbents who participated in the vote face challengers critical of their shared position, and candidates in the contest for an open fourth seat are similarly situated on opposite sides of the divide. For incumbent Scott McCulloch, who faces two challengers this cycle, the issue is indicative of the unusual forces at play in 2022, characterized by energy and competitiveness the district hasn’t witnessed in decades.

“Previous elections have been pretty quiet,” McCulloch said. “In fact, most of the time it’s election by acclamation by the board because there’s only one person [running]. For the last maybe eight years, I’m thinking, between six and eight years, we have not had an election where it was a contested race.”

Similar to Missoula’s busy school board election cycle, the dynamics in Billings trace back to the intense division over school masking policies last summer and fall. Four of the south-central Montana city’s eight candidates hail from a grassroots group called Make Masking Optional, which rallied against the August 2021 decision by Billings Public School Superintendent Greg Upham to mandate masks across the district. Since then, the list of issues has grown in parallel with national controversies about critical race theory, objections to specific books and socially oriented material in math curricula. One slate of candidates has been inspired to action by a board it views as unresponsive to parental concerns. The other seeks to maintain the district’s institutional momentum and focus on ongoing efforts its present members are already engaged in.

In a way, Shannon Johnson sees herself as a contributor to the conflicts that brought Billings to this electoral juncture. For too long, she said, she and others looked away and declined to get involved. The pandemic changed all that. Her shock over what she saw as a deleterious masking policy, one she said caused her two public school children pain and discomfort, set her on a path to activism and a spot on the 2022 ballot. The other issues that have arisen since she first joined Make Masking Optional have only solidified her belief that change in Billings’ public schools is long overdue.

"At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of passionate parents who love our kids fiercely, and I’m not going to let any government body tell us what we will or will not do."
School board candidate Shannon Johnson

“We’re starting to see the Billings community wake up and say, ‘We need change,’” Johnson said. “I think we’re seeing more people feel comfortable to speak out because they’re not going to be judged or ostracized or even segregated as a result of that. At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of passionate parents who love our kids fiercely, and I’m not going to let any government body tell us what we will or will not do.”

Two more recent additions to the list of election-defining issues landed this week. On Monday, the board voted 5-3 to raise the district’s maximum attendance age from 19 to 20 in response to an appeal to allow a Billings West High School student with Down syndrome to attend her senior year. The revision was accompanied by community uproar, and Johnson wonders whether the heat of the election cycle influenced the vote. Chad Nelson, another Make Masking Optional-endorsed candidate, said the matter should have been a “slam dunk” for the board, but the debate instead dragged on for several weeks.

Nelson also spoke to a second issue arising from Monday’s meeting, during which the board approved new math curriculum material. Similar to a controversy now raging in Florida, where the Department of Education rejected dozens of proposed math textbooks this month, Nelson questions a curriculum he believes is inappropriately “promoting equity” by framing math questions with environmental, gender and racial themes.

“A math teacher isn’t even qualified for that,” Nelson said. “That’s a civics class, a social studies class or government class discussion. That’s not a math class discussion.”

The rise in electoral participation and involvement corresponds with an equally atypical level of activity on the periphery. Johnson and Nelson both said they’d attended local workshops sponsored by the conservative policy nonprofit Americans for Prosperity. Johnson described the workshop she attended as encouraging community members to run for office and offering training on how to run a campaign. AFP Montana chapter Director David Herbst, however, said the nature of such events is to build and mobilize coalitions of community activists on issues central to the organization’s mission, including school choice. He added that AFP has not endorsed any candidates or engaged in any direct activity around the Billings school board election.

Other local and statewide organizations have stepped in to offer candidates platforms through which to connect with Billings voters. The nonprofit Forward Montana held a virtual forum in April featuring four candidates endorsed by the Billings Education Association — Teresa Larsen and incumbents McCulloch, Zack Terakedis and Brian Yates — as well as one of McCulloch’s challengers, Kayla Ladson. Meanwhile, Johnson and the other three candidates endorsed by Make Masking Optional — Chad Nelson, Kristen Gilfeather and John VonLangen — have appeared before the Yellowstone County Republican Women, which, according to state campaign finance records, also donated $200 to each of their campaigns.

The GOP contributions in particular put a finer political point on an election that, by definition, is nonpartisan. Billings Education Association President Doug Robison, whose union represents educators throughout the district, said that while he’s not surprised at how politicized the election has become, he was shocked and concerned to see overtly partisan involvement on the fringes.

“Obviously I’m a strong advocate of public education,” Robison said. “I honestly believe it’s the foundation of democracy and our society. And in Montana, it’s guaranteed in our Constitution. … I am strongly against the privatization of education.”

Robison’s last point is a nod to the deeper concern fueling questions about the parental rights movement in Montana and the aspiring school board trustees within its ranks. Organizations such as AFP and Parents’ Rights in Education, and even certain Republican lawmakers, openly advocate for policies they claim grant parents and students greater educational choice. Public education associations representing teachers, administrators and school board members see those same policies as an effort to divert public school funding to private education. Opposition to masking, critical race theory and other hot-button issues in 2022 have run squarely into a longstanding divide in education policy, and what one side considers a move toward increased freedom, the other interprets as a doorway to the erosion of public instruction.

"Those things will keep going as long as there’s this notion that somehow this is a liberal ploy in the school districts to redefine what it means to be an American."
Billings school board member Scott McCulloch

Regardless of the outcome of the Billings school board election May 3, the politicization that both sparked and defined such a busy cycle has already had lasting effects. Debates about critical race theory, math curricula and books on library shelves have “fired people up,” McCulloch said. Just as COVID-19 left the district with serious long-term issues to resolve — among them, the retention of teachers exhausted from two years of pandemic-impacted instruction — McCulloch also sees the virus as having opened a door to a level of interest in school issues that’s anything but a flash in the pan.

“Those things will keep going as long as there’s this notion that somehow this is a liberal ploy in the school districts to redefine what it means to be an American,” McCulloch said. “That will keep people fired up, and for everyone that accepts that challenge on the far right, there’s going to be somebody coming from the left who says, ‘No, that’s not what’s happening.’ It will engender more interest in the school board elections for quite a while.”