Midway through the question-and-answer period of a forum for candidates running for the Flathead Valley Community College board of trustees last week, Clarice Ryan stood and asked how the school could “incorporate politics” into more of the teaching curriculum.
Prior to Ryan’s question, Mark Holston, a sitting member of the board, asked one of the candidates, Edwin X Berry, “If you achieve your goal here of having the tea party take over this campus, what are your goals?”
So it was after Ryan’s question about politics that Robert Nystuen, the current chairman of the FVCC board of trustees, apparently felt compelled to read aloud some of the programs offered by the college, a list including: surveying, culinary arts, welding, nursing, paramedicine and others.
Though he didn’t say so, Nystuen’s implication was that very little of the questions over political ideology had anything to with the operation of Flathead Valley Community College. But in the run-up to the May 3 election of three new trustees, political ideology seems to be having quite a lot to do with FVCC’s future.
A spate of challengers affiliated with conservative, tea party-style political groups are challenging incumbent members of FVCC’s board of trustees for three open seats, and that has some current board members and community leaders wondering why.
“Is it to begin engineering a tea party takeover of the college?” Holston, a former chair of the Flathead County Democrats, said. “When many people look at it, that’s what they see.”
Holston and others who have long been involved with the college tout the growth and success of FVCC over the last 20 years, and dispute the notion that some drastic change in leadership is necessary.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” George Ostrom, an original member of the FVCC board, said. “I don’t trust these people at all.”
But Berry and other challengers deny that there is some conservative conspiracy afoot, saying they are simply trying to offer a choice to voters for board seats that have rarely been contested over the last five years. And despite the unusual questions from some audience members at the candidate forum, most responses by the challengers were broadly supportive of the college’s direction and growth.
As someone who holds a PhD and works as an atmospheric physicist, Berry believes his approach and educational background would make him a good trustee, where he says his focus would be to expand math and science offerings at the college.
“I think that kind of experience is necessary on the board,” Berry said. “I don’t think they’ve made the best judgments for the college; I think they are serving themselves.”
Berry gained prominence for his conservative blog, PolyMontana.com, where he disputes scientific evidence that climate change is caused by humans, and is deeply critical of moderate Republicans in the state Legislature.
In recent weeks he has set up a separate blog dedicated to the FVCC trustee race, where he calls for the firing and replacement of the current board, questions whether Phelps improperly performed his duties as a notary while serving as the Whitefish city attorney, and asserts that Nystuen, the president of Glacier Bank, has a conflict of interest if the bank issued loans related to student financing or construction projects at FVCC.
Since Nystuen’s seat is unchallenged, Berry recommends on his blog voters write in “Mickey Mouse” on the ballot instead.
Upon learning of the board openings, Berry said he related the opportunity to several people he knew through various conservative groups. But Holston and Bob Brown, a former secretary of state and Republican nominee for governor in 2004 who fought to fund the college in its early years as a legislator, are suspicious as to whether the challengers have an agenda.
“They have a responsibility to come clean about what they’d do if elected,” Brown said. “I think they’re playing a clever game of trying to fly under the radar.”
“The community college is very well run here and I don’t want to risk a change in direction,” Brown added.
At the candidate forum April 18, incumbent trustee Tom Harding, clearly bristling at criticism of the current board, asked the challengers to name an instance where the college failed to deliver on the needs of taxpayers or students. Several suggestions the challengers made, like offering an accounting program with internship opportunities at local firms, already exist at FVCC. (Berry has written on his blog, “There is absolutely nothing Harding can offer to lead a college into the future. He should withdraw from this election.”)
Another key issue at the forum was FVCC’s reliance on federal funding and grants. Out of the 2,800 degree-seeking students at FVCC, 1,225 received federal Pell Grants in the 2009-2010 year, according to the college’s financial aid report. That’s 71 percent of FVCC students who receive some type of financial assistance.
Though most of the challengers said they had used federal financial aid in the course of their own education, several said the school would do better to rely less on the federal government and more on state and local sources.
“Education is the responsibility of the state and local community,” challenger Tim Baldwin said. “We are so in debt that we can’t find our way out of it.”
But Holston questions why, if many of the challengers are calling for increased local support for the college, they have not made donations to FVCC in the past.
“That local money just doesn’t fall out of trees,” Holston said. “Every current board member contributes on an annual basis to the (FVCC) foundation.”
A review of FVCC’s annual financial report’s list of donors from the last three years does not turn up the names of any of the challengers, though some donors are anonymous. All incumbent trustees have given to the college in that time.
Berry acknowledged he has not given to the college or previously attended any trustee board meetings, but he has given presentations on climate change.
“I’ve engaged in a very professional way, which I think is probably as important, as meaningful, as attending the board meetings,” he said.
As with any public office, the dispute over the direction of FVCC will ultimately be decided by voters.
“One’s experience and education are extremely relevant to this job,” Berry said. “I hope people will really look at the qualifications and make the best judgment they can when they vote.”
FVCC Board of Trustees Election: The Candidates
BIGFORK, WHITEFISH, COLUMBIA FALLS DISTRICTS (TWO OPENINGS, 3-YEAR TERM)
EDWIN X BERRY
Edwin Berry holds a bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Technology, a master’s degree from Dartmouth University and a PhD in physics from the University of Nevada, Reno. Berry is currently the director of Climate Physics, LLC in Bigfork. He worked previously as chief scientist for the Desert Research Institute’s airborne facility studying storms, and managed a business in California that detected wind shear to reduce aircraft accidents. He blogs at http://polymontana.com/.
On FVCC: “The students must never be obligated to adopt a certain set of ideas to have to pass,” Berry said. “I encourage more diversity than is now present at the college.”
On federal funding: “A college should seek all available sources of funding that are consistent with its mission … and reject funding not consistent with its mission.”
THOMAS HARDING (incumbent)
A graduate of Whitefish High School, Thomas Harding attended the University of Montana before serving in Vietnam. After taking on his family’s building materials business, he managed it until its closure in 1992. He also worked at Home Depot. Harding was first elected to the FVCC board in 1990, and has served in various offices and on many committees.
On FVCC: “We have delivered on giving this community a fine community college,” Harding said. “I would like to continue to do that.”
On federal funding: Harding remarked on enrollment increases since 2008, saying, “We could not have done that and accomplished what has been accomplished without varying funding sources.”
A resident of the Flathead Valley since 1980, Roland Horst currently manages the medical office of his wife, Dr. Ann Bukacek. He is a board member on the Montana ProLife Coalition, and he and Bukacek are prominent anti-abortion activists. He has held several jobs in the valley, including 13 years at Plum Creek. Horst and his three children have taken several classes at FVCC. He holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern Montana College.
On FVCC: “We’re dealing with financial problems and I have experience in that area, when to spend and when not to spend,” Horst said. “I’m not going into an established group and trying to turn it on its head, unless it’s necessary of course.”
On federal funding: “I have nothing against federal funding, federal programs … as long as there’s no strings attached,” Horst said. “It’s why we need to work on developing local funding.”
JOHN PHELPS (incumbent)
John Phelps served as the Whitefish city attorney for 15 years, and retired last year after practicing law for 32 years. He was elected to the FVCC board of trustees in June 2007. In the 1990s, Phelps taught American government and political theory at the college as an adjunct faculty member. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Wichita State University and a JD from the University of Kansas School of Law.
On FVCC: “I’d like to see it simply moving forward in the way it’s moving forward,” Phelps said. “The college is operated and run in a fabulous manner.”
On federal funding: “As long as federal funds advance the college … I support accepting those funds.”
Glenn Wehe is currently the technology coordinator at Evergreen School District 50, where he has worked for 11 years. He is a member of the Northwest Montana Incident Management team. Wehe began his career in the 1980s working on commodity exchanges in Chicago, eventually leaving for a demolition/hazard remediation firm on the East Coast. He was an outspoken advocate for the so-called “Sheriff’s First” bill, which would have required federal law enforcement to communicate with county authorities before arrests. Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed it.
On FVCC: “I bring a fairly thorough knowledge of school operations,” Wehe said, adding that there exists, “room for possibly enhancing the curriculum.”
On federal funding: “Federal funding can provide needed relief and opportunity for worker retraining,” Wehe said, “as long as those federal funds don’t require programs continue without funding.”
FLATHEAD HIGH DISTRICT (ONE OPENING, 2-YEAR TERM)
Tim Baldwin moved to the Flathead last year from Florida, where he was born and raised. He attended what is now Pensacola State College, then obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida. Baldwin graduated with a JD from Cumberland School of Law in 2004. A former prosecutor, Baldwin currently practices law in Kalispell. His father, Chuck Baldwin, was the Constitution Party’s nominee for president in 2008.
On FVCC: “We need a trustee member that is going to look at the state of the school, of the state, of the country,” Baldwin said. “The school should facilitate students learning how to learn.”
On federal funding: “The state and the local community should be willing and should enjoy funding the local institutions,” Baldwin said. “The economic situation that we are facing actually requires that the state become more independent in our funding system.”
The owner and operator of a Farmers Insurance office in Kalispell, Michael Hebert completed an associate’s degree at FVCC last year, and is currently working on getting his bachelor’s. He is an Army veteran, and has lived in the Flathead much of his adult life. He and his wife, Marlene, are active members of the Easthaven Baptist Church.
On FVCC: “My entire family are educators … I know the struggles and the vision that teachers have for education,” Hebert said. “I intimately know these people and it is a good place to go to school.”
On federal funding: “We all know that education brings a higher wage earning ability,” Hebert said, calling for expansions in entrepreneurship programs, business partnerships and local scholarships.
SHANNON LUND (incumbent)
Shannon Lund was chosen from a field of six in March to fill the open trustee seat when John Engebretson resigned. Originally from southeast Montana, Lund is a medical technologist and account executive with Xerox who has volunteered with a number of organizations, including: North Valley Hospital, CASA and Intermountain Children’s Home. Her husband, Tom, is branch president of Rocky Mountain Bank in Kalispell. She holds a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from MSU.
On FVCC: “We need to be a liaison between the community and the college,” Lund said. “We need to ensure academic quality.”
On federal funding: “We can’t do without that at this time,” Lund said. “If we don’t have that next year, next semester, we’re not going to be the college we are now.”
FLATHEAD HIGH DISTRICT (3-YEAR TERM)
ROBERT NYSTUEN, Interim Chairman (incumbent and unopposed)
Robert Nystuen, the president of Glacier Bank, was elected to the board of trustees in 2002. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Agriculture at North Dakota State University. Over the course of a 35-year career, Nystuen has held banking positions throughout Montana before moving to the Flathead in 1996. He serves on the board of the Flathead Food Bank, Montana West Economic Development and is a member of the Flathead Business and Education Council.
On FVCC: “What I think we’ve got is a group of trustees that have served on the board for a number of years with a great track record,” Nystuen said. “We want to continue our progress in moving the college forward here.”
On federal funding: “Over 70 percent of FVCC students receive some type of federal assistance,” Nystuen said. “Our community’s economic prosperity comes from institutions like FVCC.”
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