Four Incumbents Win Re-Election to Kalispell School Board

Voters pass one of two Kalispell levies in tight votes; handful of board challengers claim seats in outlying Flathead County districts

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

A quartet of sitting members of the Kalispell Public Schools Board of Trustees cruised to re-election Tuesday night as voters delivered a decisive endorsement to a board that endured sharp criticism from anti-mask advocates during a contentious race.

High school trustees Sue Corrigan (4,164 votes), Rebecca Linden (3,934) and Lance Isaak (3,886) won new three-year terms in their race, defeating Tina Tobiason (2,208), Shaun Pandina (1,984) and Trish Pandina (1,810). Elementary trustee Kim Wilson (3,984) also won her race over Dennis Gomez (2,144), earning a one-year term.

Five challengers ran as a bloc against the incumbents and one of them, Heather Asher, did claim a seat. Asher (772 votes) will serve for three years as a high school trustee, representing the mostly rural elementary schools Cayuse Prairie, Deer Park, Creston and Fair-Mont Egan. Amy Waller (713) had occupied that seat.

The race for trustees garnered unusual attention this year, with political signs and other campaign material visible throughout Kalispell, and both the Flathead County Republican and Democratic parties throwing their weight behind one bloc of the candidates (the Democrats supported the incumbents). Shaun Pandina, one of the unsuccessful challengers, had been a regular presence at board meetings during the 2020-2021 school year, arguing that the district’s no-exception mask requirements were harming students. Pandina and the other challengers all opposed the mandatory mask requirement and stressed the importance of teaching the Constitution in the districts.

Incumbents countered that the district has a rigorous Constitutional curriculum — it is taught from grades five through 12 — and that the mask requirement allowed School District 5 to remain open to in-person instruction every day during the school year, adding that anyone who did not wish to wear a mask had the option of attending school remotely. Kalispell was the largest district in the state to stay open every day during the school year, which public health and school officials say was largely due to the mask requirement keeping COVID-19 cases relatively low in school buildings.

Sara Busse, the chair of the Political Action Committee (PAC) Proud Public Education Supporters of Kalispell, issued a statement on the election early Wednesday morning.

“This is a big win for public education and our kids,” Busse wrote. “Common sense voters stood up to the bullies and said loud and clear that proven service for our students and schools triumphs over personal agendas and political propaganda.”

The district received 13,281 votes in the election, a significant jump over recent elections. Superintendent Micah Hill said around 7,000 votes are cast in a typical year. Ballots were due at 8 p.m. Tuesday night and a final vote count was not reached until after midnight.

The results are still unofficial at this point and Hill wrote that “extra steps” will be taken to confirm the vote totals, particularly in two very tight votes on district levies. A general fund levy in the elementary school district passed by 29 votes — 3,365 for, 3,336 opposed — while a technology levy for the high schools failed by 48 votes (6,567 to 6,519). The discrepancy in vote totals is because there are six elementary schools in District 5, but the two high schools, Flathead and Glacier, include students from several outlying elementary schools with their own districts and boards.

A vote approving the district’s acquisition of land at Old Schoolhouse Station, at no new cost to the voters, passed easily (9,476 to 3,672).

“On behalf of the Kalispell Public Schools Board of Trustees, students, staff and administration we are humbled and grateful for the support the community has shown our schools through the passage of the Elementary General Fund Levy and the Land Acquisition request,” Hill wrote in a press release announcing the results. “We are naturally disappointed that the passage of the high school technology levy fell short as it would have been pivotal in providing very needed resources in serving our students and staff. We truly believe our district is worthy of a supportive community. We will continue to work hard to earn the respect and trust from our taxpayers that will help us serve the students and families of our district.”

Voters also went to the ballot box in several other Flathead County districts and a handful of challengers unseated trustees, almost all of whom supported requiring masks in school. Every district in Northwest Montana began the school year with a mask mandate and most have kept that in place through the spring, even as pressure has mounted from opponents and Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinded the state’s mask requirement earlier this year. Schools are not specifically impacted by the governor’s directive and boards have the authority to set their own rules to maintain the health and safety of students and teachers.

In Bigfork, where the board voted to remove its mask mandate against the recommendation of the administration, Ben Woods (706 votes), who was an outspoken opponent of the mask requirement, won a spot on the board, ousting Christina Relyea (647). Relyea was one of three trustees who voted to keep the mask mandate in place for the duration of the school year.

In Columbia Falls, incumbent board chair Jill Rocksund (1,207 votes) won re-election in a tight contest, but the top vote-getter in a race for two seats was challenger Wayne Jacobsmeyer (1,286). Jacobsmeyer was endorsed by the Flathead County Republicans and on a Facebook page promoting his candidacy he wrote that he supported “optional” masking, that “gender choice issues have no place in our school district” and that “our children have been test subjects of liberal theories and curriculum.” Jacobsmeyer ran with challenger Andrew Doyle (1,028), who was not elected.

Jacobsmeyer replaces former School District 6 Superintendent Mike Nicosia, who joined the board in 2018, four years after retiring as the district’s superintendent. Nicosia, who earned 1,114 votes for re-election, spent decades in public education, including 30 years as a superintendent — 19 of those in Columbia Falls — in addition to several years as a principal and teacher.

In Whitefish, Quincy Bennetts (1,403 votes) and Todd Lengacher (1,225) won spots on the board. Both incumbents — Betsy Kohnstamm and Ruth Harrison — did not seek re-election.

School Election Results

School District 5 (Kalispell) Ballot Initiatives
High School Site Acquisition — PASSED (9,476-3,672)
High School Technology Levy — FAILED (6,567-6,519)
Elementary General Fund Levy — PASSED (3,365-3,336)

School District 5 (Kalispell) Elementary District Trustees
Three elected to three-year terms
* Sue Corrigan (4,164)
* Rebecca Linden (3,934)
* Lance Isaak (3,886)
Tina Tobiason (2,208)
Shaun Pandina (1,984)
Trish Pandina (1,810)

School District 5 (Kalispell) Elementary District Trustee
One elected to one-year term
* Kim Wilson (3,984)
Dennis Gomez (2,144)

School District 5 (Kalispell) High School District Trustee
One elected to three-year term
Heather Asher (772)
* Amy Waller (713)

School District 6 (Columbia Falls) Trustees
Two elected to three-year terms
Wayne Jacobsmeyer (1,286)
* Jill Rocksund (1,207)
* Mike Nicosia (1,114)
Andrew Doyle (1,028)
David Shaffer (481)

School District 38 (Bigfork) Elementary Trustee
One elected to three-year term
Ben Woods (706)
* Christina Relyea (647)
John Michael Knopik (214)

School District 44 (Whitefish) Trustees
Two elected to three-year terms
Quincy Bennetts (1,403)
Todd Lengacher (1,225)
Leanette Kearns (850)
David Diehl (798)
Emily Morrow (395)

* – Incumbent