Education

Petitioners Attempt Recall of Whitefish School Board

Petition is one of more than 80 similar efforts across the country, few have been successful

By Micah Drew
Whitefish High School on March 15, 2020. Montana Governor Steve Bullock ordered a statewide closure of schools on March 15 in an effort to contain the spread of novel coronavirus in Montana. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A group of Whitefish parents upset by the Whitefish School District Board of Trustees’ decision to require masks for all students, staff and visitors in grades kindergarten through sixth, is gathering signatures for a petition to recall all seven trustees.

The circulating petition, which has until December 29 to collect 2,391 signatures in order to advance, claims the trustees violated the “right of participation” section of the Montana Constitution, which states “the public has the right to expect governmental agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies prior to the final decision.”

According to the petition, the issue stems from an Aug. 12 board of trustees meeting that discussed whether to make face coverings optional or required. The trustees heard from 41 members of the public as well as members of the medical community and shared the results of several surveys sent to parents, teacher unions and other staff members in the district. The petition claims that the results of the surveys were misrepresented and therefore went against the “right of participation.”

Lance Melton, head of the Montana School Boards Association (MSBA), says the petition has no basis in law.

“The open meeting laws require a reasonable opportunity for the public to participate in the decision of government,” he said. “I see the districts across the state, and especially in Whitefish, going above and beyond to facilitate public participation. I don’t see any provision in law to make survey results a necessary part of that process.”

Melton said that in his 25 years with MSBA he’s never seen any recall petition get to the point where it was placed on the ballot and presented to voters.

“It’s a very high and specific standard that’s set forth in the law,” he said, adding that if enough signatures were received it would move to the courts to determine whether there was legal standing to proceed.

Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan nonprofit website that tracks elections, has followed all school board recall efforts nationwide in 2021, most of which stemmed from COVID-19 responses. Out of 82 recall efforts targeting 212 school officials, only eight have made it onto a ballot.

Across all levels of government, there have been 107 recall efforts related to government responses to the pandemic since 2020, and only one official was removed from office, a school trustee in Idaho who voted in the majority during a 3-1 decision to require masks in classrooms last year.

According to Whitefish School District Clerk Lucie Shea, if the school district has to run a recall election it will cost $15,000 in taxpayer money.

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