Education

Opposition to Mask Mandates Inspires Slate of School Board Challengers in Kalispell Election

Five challengers take on incumbent trustees who kept district’s schools open — but required mask wearing — throughout 2020-21 school year

By Andy Viano
The entrance to the Kalispell Public Schools office in downtown Kalispell on Sept. 27, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Five challengers spurred by their hardline opposition to a mask mandate in Kalispell Public Schools are attempting to earn seats on the district’s board of trustees in an effort to repeal the district’s most consequential COVID-19 safety measure and, they say, change some of the district’s educational priorities to better represent their conservative values.

The challenge has brought unusual attention to the typically low-key races, and comes on the heels of a school year marked by the pandemic and heated debate over face coverings. The field consists of two blocs of five candidates: one is the incumbents who say they are proud of the way the district navigated an unprecedented year and kept its doors open when most of the country did not, and the other is a group of challengers who say the board overstepped by requiring masks to the detriment of the student population and that schools in the district must teach more of the Constitution.

The result is a slate of tense races that will be decided in the coming weeks, with ballots mailed out on April 19. Ballots must be returned to the Kalispell Public Schools administrative office at 233 First Ave. E. either in person or by mail before May 4 at 8 p.m. Residents could receive multiple ballots because the five seats are part of three different races: one seat for a one-year term representing the elementary district, three seats for three-year terms representing the elementary district, and one three-year term representing the Flathead High School district.

School board races are nonpartisan, but this year’s race, and others in surrounding districts, has come to resemble the ideological battles of political contests nationwide. Campaign signs are readily visible throughout town, active social media pages have popped up for both groups, a supporter of the incumbents has formed a political action committee (PAC) to advocate on their behalf, and the Flathead County Republicans took the unusual step of endorsing the five challengers in an email newsletter.

The five incumbents — Lance Isaak, Sue Corrigan, Rebecca Linden, Amy Waller and Kim Wilson — have tried to tamp down the political fervor by focusing on their experience, their ability to work well together, and their commitment to putting teachers and students in position to succeed. The challengers — Shaun Pandina, Trish Pandina, Tina Tobiason, Heather Asher and Dennis Gomez — have tried to steer the conversation away from masking as well, saying they want education to focus on the Constitution, fretting over purported left-wing agendas permeating classrooms and, in one case, advocating for creationism to be taught alongside evolution.

But the disagreements between the two sides began with masks, and whether or not that issue is now at the center of the campaign, it is the undercurrent running through this election. 

Corrigan, who along with being an incumbent board member also taught at Flathead High for 17 years, dismissed the notion that the challengers have a substantive platform beyond outrage over masks.

“(I’m concerned) anytime you have a trustee that has one issue, one agenda,” she said before acknowledging that masks would likely be a non-issue in the very near future. “And then what? What’s your issue then? I think some of the issues they have manufactured to address that. The Constitution? Starting in the fifth grade we teach the Constitution all the way through the 12th grade.”

Shaun Pandina, the only one of the five school board challengers who agreed to answer questions from the Beacon, has spoken in opposition to masks at multiple school board meetings this year but bristled at the contention that he is a single-issue candidate.

“I stand for more than just making masks optional,” Pandina wrote in an email. “I stand for the students and will put them first. I stand for liberty (and) freedom, and believe we need a more comprehensive constitutional curriculum.”

Students, parents and others gather outside Flathead High School to protest the Kalispell School District’s face mask requirement on March 9, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Pandina and the other challengers posted candidate profiles on Facebook, and four of them gave interviews to Montana Gazette Radio, a right-wing outlet based in the Flathead Valley. In those profiles and interviews, the challengers offer some hints about their governing principles, with many hitting similar notes on fiscal responsibility and the importance of the Constitution.

The Beacon asked Shaun Pandina what he believes is insufficient about the district’s Constitutional curriculum in addition to a previously stated intention to begin teaching it in the third grade, two years earlier than it is now.

“The origins of the Constitution should be taught,” he wrote. “These questions should be asked and answered: Where did the principles that the Constitution is based on come from? Who were the men that signed the Declaration of Independence and what happened to them? Why is the Constitution important to We the People?”

Some of the other challengers have strayed further into more extreme positions. In her Facebook introduction, Asher warned that the district needs “trustees that are alert and on a constant lookout for the far-left activist, cancel culture and communist agenda that is creeping it’s way into our schools.” Gomez, who said he worked on the district’s custodial staff for more than seven years, told the Montana Gazette, “They’re teaching LGBQ (sic), you know? I’m against that as well.”

In her interview with the Gazette, Trish Pandina told host Jim White that her children were enrolled at Stillwater Christian School before attending public schools and that while her candidacy “definitely” started with her opposition to masks, she has witnessed “a lot of disturbing things” since entering the public school system.

“The education is definitely a problem,” she said. “Our son tells us, with Earth Science, it’s very biased; only one side. I believe that you should teach both sides, evolutionist and creationist, and they’re only getting the evolutionist side which is, in my opinion, biased.”

In interviews with the Beacon, Corrigan and Linden were not asked about creationism specifically but downplayed the board’s role in shaping curriculum in general, particularly at the classroom level. 

“There are certain things the board can do and certain things the board should not do,” Corrigan said. “We can set that overall governance, but we’re not getting involved in micromanaging. We shouldn’t be talking to individual teachers and telling them what to do. There’s a hierarchy … it’s why we hire good people.”

“A school board’s main responsibility is long-term vision,” Linden said. “Our job is to talk to our superintendent and share our vision … to realize it’s not your place (to micromanage) is a hard one for school board members across the country.”

About 70 students, parents and others gathered outside Flathead High School to protest the Kalispell School District’s face mask requirement on March 9, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Sara Busse, who founded the PAC Proud Public Education Supporters of Kalispell, has additional concerns about the “toxic” atmosphere that accompanies any debate about masks. Since the start of the school year, numerous protests and walkouts have been held outside school buildings and board meetings, and the community’s frustration boiled over at a board meeting on Feb. 24 to decide whether to extend the mask mandate. The board did so, voting 11-0, but only after around 150 people gave passionate public comment and a handful of students speaking in support of masks were jeered by opponents.

“People are seeing our school board is at stake,” Busse said. “The only agenda that was important (to the board) was education and that has spiraled out of control … to see a group come out so toxically against that has been devastating.”

Shaun Pandina, who has attended a number of the protests including one at Columbia Falls High School on April 16, according to his Facebook page, told the Beacon that “everyone should be able to express their grievances” but said abusive language and actions, like has been reported by some school administrators, was unacceptable.

“Threats, bullying and physical violence should not be tolerated,” he wrote in an email, adding that the district’s mask policy “causes students who do not believe in wearing a face covering to be bullied and shamed by other students, staff and administrators.”

Students have had the option of attending school remotely from the beginning of the school year, but there is near universal agreement that in-person education provides the best opportunity for learning. It has, therefore, become a point of pride for School District 5 trustees and administrators that none of the district’s 11 school buildings closed for a single day this year, which they say no other large district in the state can claim. They and public health officials also agree that the district was only able to keep its doors open because of COVID-19 mitigation measures implemented last summer, perhaps none more important that requiring masks at all times.

“It’s shocking when we talk to our friends across the United States and they hear from us that our kids have been in-person,” Busse said. “We’ve been able to go to activities, watch them in choir, watch them play football games, yet we are still going through this incredible toxic backlash. We are the lucky ones and it’s so disappointing.”

“We did it right,” Busse added. “It wasn’t perfect but we did it, and that’s what’s so frustrating. They deserve our praise, not our scorn.”

Correction (April 21, 10:30 a.m.): The original version of this article misstated a quote from Shaun Pandina, which incorrectly said he stands for a “more comprehensive educational curriculum.” The correct quote is a “more comprehensive constitutional curriculum.”

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