Uncommon Ground

Local Control

School board members provide a vital public service in the valley

It was a good September day in 1903 as Whitefish got its first trustees to run public school from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Columbia Falls elected its first public school trustee in 1893 with a school opening up in 1891. Kalispell originally formed its district back in 1884 and had its first public school trustee in 1893.

Last year, 14,493 students attended public schools throughout Flathead Valley. Nearly 70 percent of these students attended one of the 19 elementary school districts in the valley with some 1,100 students in each grade from kindergarten to eighth. Valley wide, nearly one in three elementary students go to Kalispell schools.

Kalispell teaches two out of three of the nearly 4,400 students attending public high school in the valley. Whitefish has over 500 high school students while Bigfork and Columbia Falls have over 300 and nearly 700 respectively.

Beyond K-12 public education, more than 2,300 students attend Flathead Valley Community College.

That’s some 16,000 students valley wide who attend public schools. Each of these public schools have a school board comprised of elected community members who oversee a variety of duties throughout their three-year terms.

School board trustees are in charge of the vast majority decisions about how local schools run. They have the power to hire and fire teachers and administrators. They determine how much teachers are paid. Trustees call, hold and certify school elections.

Trustees decide when and how schools should be rebuilt and where taxpayer dollars in education budgets are spent. They set local policy for students and teachers.

It’s a one big public service job. I’m grateful to those who serve and assure kids and students get a great public education as guaranteed by our state constitution.

An old-timer neighbor instilled in me a belief that if it was for the kids, I should support the effort. She believed kids came first and teachers should be paid more. That’s still true today.

Over the past decade Flathead voters felt similarly as we’ve approved over $134 million worth of school building.

Over the last 15 years Whitefish voters have approved $50 million in new schools. Our district rebuilt both a middle and high school, and is currently working on getting the new $26 million elementary school up and running by next year.

Each May every school district in the valley elects some new trustees. Most any citizen who’s lived a year in the district and doesn’t work for the district can run. Each of the 20 public school districts in the Flathead has upcoming openings.

Valley wide, 36 school board members will be elected or appointed this May.

In Columbia Falls the terms of EllenJoy Hoerner and Larry Wilson are up. For FVCC the current terms of Shannon Lund and Mark Holston end in May. In Kalispell Anna Marie Bailey, Mark Twichel and Mark Kornick must decide if they will run again. In Whitefish the three-year terms of Nick Polumbus and Anna Deese will soon end.

School board members provide a vital public service in the valley. No matter where one lives, there’s a school board election come May. If you’re interested in the most local of governments, maybe it’s time to run, lead, or help.

Two years ago Whitefish’s top school vote getter was Katie Clarke, receiving 1,284 votes. In Columbia Falls, Dean Chisholm topped the ballot with 1,059 votes. In Kalispell, Bette Albright topped results and garnered 2,626 votes. In places like Fari-Mont-Egan or Smith Valley trustee winners needed less than 200 votes.

Every year, big stuff happens at our public schools. Be a part of the solution, run for office this May. At a bare minimum vote and help select the local people who serve our public interest.