Two Incumbents, Four Newcomers Vie for Kalispell School Board Positions

Challengers seek greater parental involvement, while incumbents tout work keeping schools open during pandemic and hiring top administrators

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

Compared to 2021, when opposition to school masking policies prompted a bloc of outspoken challengers to try unsuccessfully to unseat a slate of incumbents, this year’s school board election in Kalispell is somewhat less contentious but no less crowded.

The Kalispell Public Schools Board of Trustees races will be decided May 3 at 8 p.m., by which time voters must have either returned their ballots by mail or delivered them in person to the Kalispell Public Schools administrative office at 233 First Ave. E. This year, residents can receive multiple ballots because the open seats cross district jurisdictions: two seats are open for three-year terms representing the elementary district, and one seat is open for a three-year term as a Flathead High School district trustee representing Somers, Lakeside and Kila.

The two incumbents, high school trustee Mark Kornick and elementary trustee Ursula Wilde, are running on their record of keeping schools open during the pandemic, while pointing to the caliber of administrators who have been hired during their terms.    

“We hired Micah Hill (as superintendent) and had big hopes for what he could do for the district, but COVID happened right away,” Wilde said. “I’m really proud of what we did keeping schools open, because we know it’s the best place for kids to be. But now that we’ve moved through some of that COVID stuff I’m excited that Micah and the assistant superintendents will be able to come up with creative ideas and really evaluate what the next five, 10, 15 years should look like for the district.”

Wilde ran unopposed for her first term and said that seeing more people learn what board members do and express an interest in the position is heartening.

“We hire the superintendent, we take care of the budget and policies but really this job is about representing the community which includes taxpayers, employees and students,” she said. “This is a volunteer position, made up of mostly parents, and I would be disappointed if it moved more towards having an agenda instead of working together towards our overall vision of success.”

Kornick works for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and says he likes seeing the diversity of backgrounds on the board, which helps bring robust perspectives to all discussions. “The district is a very right ship — it’s run by very thoughtful people, and I think we’re on the right track. I’d like to maintain continuity through our current strategic planning that we’re about ready to finalize,” Kornick said.

“The hardest part of being a board member the last few years wasn’t the opposition to masks, it was the fact that we didn’t know what to do. There aren’t always clear answers, but you still have to make a decision, and stick to it. I’m that kind of guy,” Kornick continued. “You don’t have to love every decision we make, and we don’t have to love every decision we vote for, but that’s how this works.”

Candidates Lloyd Bondy, running against Kornick for the high school trustee position, along with Dana Bennett running for the elementary trustee seats, have emerged as strong parental rights advocates, both speaking for a greater need for parental and community involvement in schools.

“While I believe we have an excellent district, I think there’s gaps that need to be filled, in communication between parents and the school board, gaps in funding between wealthy donors and schools and a big gap in parental involvement,” Bondy said. “It’s in the best interest of kids and their mental health to see parents in the school and involved and present in the process.”

“I have no opportunities to be involved in right now that I’m aware of,” he added, saying parents could have opportunities to serve as hall monitors, in the kitchen or as observers in the classrooms.

Kornick said he doesn’t view a lack of parental involvement as a problem with the district. “Most school districts are very transparent and are really looking for parents to become more involved. Our open-door policy couldn’t be more open, and in fact as a board member, I’m shocked that there isn’t more parental attendance when we have meetings and make decisions.”

Bondy also said he has an interest in increasing security at schools to keep students safe. And he said he wants to see more stringent rules regarding cell phone usage in schools, pointing out that it only takes a second to respond to a text message but that’s enough for a student to lose focus.

Bennett said she wants the district to do a better job of acknowledging parental concerns and frustrations, saying there’s too big of a disconnect between teachers, parents and kids.

“Kids are the future of our sovereign nation, everyone should have a voice in that future,” Bennett said. “I want more action from students and the citizens of this community as opposed to the administrators.”

Bennett said she wants to keep politics out of the classroom and described a system where she believes teachers push political views on their students and are able to grade students based on the views they hold.

“I will ensure our administrators are providing proper oversight to make sure our students are being instructed in the fundamental curriculum without political or philosophical opinions.”

Jennifer Sevier brings experience in early education to her run for the elementary trustee seat and wants to put more emphasis on smoothing the transition for families into the school system.

“There’s such an open door in early childhood care where parents can come and go, but then in kindergarten it all changes,” Sevier said. “We need to not necessarily be more parent friendly, but more parent accommodating and have spaces where parents can talk about those changes.”

Sevier also wants to increase educational choices for students, from adding more certificate programs for high schoolers, making it easier to earn an associate degree for students who don’t want to go on to secondary school, and making sure teachers have the time and support to implement more hands-on learning at the lower grades.

“However we can get more community involved in school is great,” she said. “And I’m looking to bring more arts and engagement to our kids.”

Steven Biggs, a chiropractor, said he decided to run for the elementary school board seat after noticing a greater need for transparency and accountability.

Biggs’ candidacy was called into question when an official challenge was issued regarding his ability to run. Biggs initially filed with his home address, which is in the West Valley elementary district, disqualifying him from running for a KPS elementary school trustee seat. When he was notified of this in March, Biggs changed his voter registration to his business office, which is in Kalispell.

 When asked about the change, Biggs stated his office was “where I get my mail and it’s where I vote.”

In an email, Biggs wrote that in addition to district crowding he is concerned about curriculum, specifically pointing to district math scores lagging behind the state.

“Each current curriculum fad that comes along needs to be vetted by more than the education establishment and needs to involve the community at large,” Biggs said.

All candidates stated their support for the $1.5 million high school general fund levy, which will support academic programs and activities, technology, curriculum and general operations including salaries and benefits, although the four challengers shared some reservations, expressed in the quotes below.

Kornick: “It’s always going to come down to funding and having ample teachers and ample space. It’s been quite a while since a levy has passed, but as far as school portions of property taxes, it will actually be going down because we have a couple other bonds that are sunsetting so it’s tax neutral at this point. Vote for the bond.”

Bondy: “I agree with the mill levy, I agree with asking taxpayers for that money. That said I’d like to explore other places to find funding — donors, grants, things of that nature. I do know that our superintendent does a good job of looking for every free financial opportunity out there.”

Wilde: “I hope people see that we have tried to be as budget conscious as we possibly can, butif we don’t pass the levy we are going to be working with the same amount of money to cover higher costs. The cost of health care and salaries for our employees is going up every year, but we aren’t getting equivalent tax raises. If we don’t have enough in the budget, we can’t hire good people, we can’t pay them what they’re worth and our district has amazing, talented, dedicated employees that we want to keep educating our students.”

Biggs: “I agree there is a need for the levy this year. However, what might not be apparent to taxpayers is the levy comes with the designation of being permanent. Some of the funds will be utilized for salaries which are ongoing and usually upwardly mobile. I feel the levy should not be made permanent and the taxpayers be given decision making abilities from year to year or at least bi-annually based on the current needs at that time.”

Bennett: “If the money is used for the right reasons to support the kids in the right manner, and not for pushing an agenda, I’m for it. Let’s fund the schools, but the community should have a say in what the money is used for so we can make the schools better.”

Sevier: “It’s really important for schools to reach out to taxpayers and for taxpayer to be open to that. It’s hard to ask the taxpayers to pay more money, but it’s for our kids. The big thing is we want kids to want to go to school — however that needs to happen is worth it.”