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Education

Factions Emerge in Whitefish School Board Race

With five candidates seeking two seats on the Whitefish School District Board of Trustees, one candidate’s profanity-laced email to sitting trustees underscores rising political tensions

By Tristan Scott
About a 100 protestors gathered in downtown Whitefish on August 18, 2021 in response to the Whitefish School Board’s decision to require masks indoors for kindergarten through 6th grade students. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Just as ballots for the Whitefish School District Board of Trustees election began arriving in voters’ mailboxes last week, one candidate’s profanity-laced email to sitting board members surfaced on social media, sharpening a divide that’s been defining volunteer school-board elections nationally since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

During this election cycle in Whitefish, residents have noticed more campaign yard signs clustered throughout neighborhoods than in years past, while glossy candidate leaflets frame the entrances to local grocery stores, raising the profile of a crowded race featuring five candidates for two seats on a board that has historically struggled to recruit candidates, and in which most registered voters don’t bother casting ballots.

In 2017, for example, less than 18 percent of registered voters turned in ballots for the Whitefish School Board election. In 2019, that number grew to 23% but in 2021, with local pandemic mitigations well underway, still less than 22% of registered voters cast ballots.

So when a menacing email written last August by candidate Jenny Paatalo appeared recently on a community Facebook page, the cutthroat nature of the race came into clearer focus, as did the politically divisive lines separating some candidates — on one side, there are those who vehemently disagree with the public health measures adopted by school officials during the pandemic, and who increasingly identify with the burgeoning “parental rights” movement, which in addition to public health protocols also vaguely centers on how race and gender figure into classroom curriculum; and on the other side, there are those who believe local public school officials effectively navigated the COVID-19 crisis, and who believe social and political agendas should be checked at the entrances to our public institutions.

Candidate Jenny Paatalo, the author of the email who moved to Whitefish in 2020, falls squarely in the former camp, even as she says she wrote the letter as a parent trying desperately to protect her children.

“You school board is full of morons and child abusers, cowards, ass kissers and science deniers,” Paatalo’s Aug. 12, 2021 email began. “They are all human garbage … You are suffocating children for a sickness the science says they don’t get, they don’t pass and they don’t die from. May you burn in hell you Nazi scum. I hope you contract real sickness and die.”

The email’s all-caps conclusion — “F*** OFF AND DIE!” — has led many to characterize it as a threat, and sitting trustees say they received its contents during a period of escalating tensions that caused them to fear for their safety.

Last year, for example, Paatalo organized a petition to recall the entire school board following its decision to require masks for students, staff and visitors in grades kindergarten through sixth, joining a national movement to resist government responses to the pandemic. Although the petition did not produce any actionable results, it pitted a segment of Whitefish’s parent population against the school board, sparking anti-mask protests outside City Hall and the decision to broadcast the names and addresses of school board trustees, encouraging critics of the district’s masking policy to protest in front of their homes.

In written exchanges with the Beacon, Paatalo said she sent the email immediately after last year’s school board meeting at which the trustees voted unanimously to mask K-6 students, explaining that she was “enraged, overcome with powerlessness, and an enormous sense of defeat and injustice.”

“I absolutely don’t feel that way now and I expressed an abundance of gratitude to the board at the December meeting when the mask mandate was dropped,” Paatalo wrote, emphasizing that, despite her change of heart, “there has been no official apology.”

“My concern with expressing an apology to the board for my language and sentiment at that moment has been that it would be interpreted as groveling or weakness. An apology must not be construed as abandoning my position that masking hurts children and mandated masking violates families. I will never apologize for that, nor the passion I feel about that,” she said, adding that her “comment was made not as a candidate.”

The recent public attention on Paatalo’s letter prompted candidate Bobee Hyland, alongside whom Paatalo publicly campaigned, to distance herself. Having only recently moved to Whitefish, Hyland said she believed she’d found an early ally in Paatalo, with whom she shared similar goals of “wanting to be a voice for the unheard parents and children of this community.”

After seeing the letter, however, Hyland disavowed Paatalo’s candidacy.

“I am shocked, horrified and appalled by this letter. I completely understand how the community is feeling, and how upset everyone is, solely because I share these same feelings. Clearly, this type of communication and behavior cannot be tolerated, and I do not support it in any way,” she wrote in a statement that she shared with the Facebook group.

“I am truly saddened that my campaign was affiliated with such negativity,” she said.

For incumbents Darcy Schellinger and Elizabeth Pitman, and for newcomer Leanette Kearns, the email amounts to more of a distraction than a threat, although as the only recipient of the email, Schellinger said it was “really traumatic” to re-read the letter’s contents.

“Being on the receiving end of a communication like that was horrific,” Schellinger, who has served on the board since 2018, said. “It’s out in the open now, and I think it’s OK for members of the community to see how we were treated. Some people were very upset with us, and it’s OK to be upset. It’s how you express your disagreement that defines you as a person.”

“This whole masking thing that got people so upset was four months out of a two-year pandemic that the school district has navigated very effectively, and I feel it’s overshadowed all of the exemplary work the district has done to ensure that every child has had an option of distance learning during this trying time,” Schellinger said. “The lengths to which our administrators went to keep kids safe and keep our staff safe have really been overlooked.”

Elizabeth Pitman, a local veterinarian who grew up in Whitefish, and who was selected to fill a vacant trustee position in January when Nick Polumbus resigned, said she recognizes the escalating community tensions that have overwhelmed parents and trustees in the past two years, and said she hopes that the role of school trustee returns to a more politically neutral position, and one that serves to advocate on behalf of children.

“During the last two years our School Board members have received personal attacks, abusive emails, and verbal insults … It certainly has no benefit for the children,” Pitman wrote in an emailed response to questions. “We each need to discuss our different beliefs and opinions as rational adults and this is an essential trait for a trustee. I hope I can help to mend the divide in our town. I am a good listener and I am willing to have respectful conversations and discussions with all members of our community.”

Leanette Kearns ran unsuccessfully as a school board trustee in 2021 and submitted her name to fill the vacancy in January. The mother of two children said she’s not deterred by the letter and emphasized that her interest in serving on the school board is due to her “strong resume and leadership skills,” and her belief that the most important decisions in government are made on the local level.

“Especially in the town of Whitefish, I have some perspective and experience that isn’t currently being represented,” Kearns said, explaining that she worked in education development and experiential learning after earning a degree from Stanford University, and now works in Whitefish’s service industry and rents an apartment, putting her on the level with many young parents who are underrepresented on local school boards.

“I don’t know if there is anyone else like that running, and I think it’s relevant to a lot of the issues we’re talking about, such as parents being able to have a say in the education system even if they are struggling to afford to live here.”

Despite being shocked by the letter, Kearns said the community’s response was uplifting.

“That gave me a lot of confidence in the community because the majority of people are saying this kind of behavior won’t be welcome here,” she said. “I can’t imagine confronting anyone in this community like that unless I was in full-on mama bear mode and felt like my children were being threatened, and even then it’s so far outside the boundaries of civil discourse.”

Anyone registered as an absentee voter should have received a ballot. The absentee ballots can be returned by mail or hand delivered anytime between now and the election on Tuesday, May 3, to the Whitefish School District Office at 600 E. Second St. between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

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