Two Incumbents, One Newcomer Win Trustee Positions in Columbia Falls School Election

Keri Hill, Barbara Riley and Megan Upton will serve three-year terms on the School District 6 Board of Trustees

By Denali Sagner
Buses are parked at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Columbia Falls voters on Tuesday elected three school board trustees, re-electing incumbents Keri Hill (1,813 votes) and Barbara Riley (1,516 votes), and electing first-time trustee Megan Upton (1,501 votes).

T.J. Middlesworth (1,473) and Jonathan Foust (942) also ran for the trustee position.

The successful campaigns of Hill and Upton — who received endorsements from the Flathead County Republicans — marked a win for conservative candidates in the district, a group that has seen success in local elections in recent years as schools have fielded conflicts over COVID-19 mitigation protocols, as well as curriculum and book content. Though school board races in Montana are officially non-partisan, meaning that candidates are not permitted to run with a party label, the Flathead County Republicans in recent years have recruited and endorsed trustee candidates, a sign of the increasing politicization of the office.  

Hill is the owner of two spas in the Flathead Valley and the mother of three children who are currently enrolled in or have graduated from School District 6. An incumbent, Hill has served on the Columbia Falls Board of Trustees since 2017. In an email to the Beacon last month, she emphasized increasing transparency in the school district, as well as working to help students achieve their goals in a changing educational landscape.

“I want to represent our tax payers in providing the best education possible. My top priority is student achievement,” Hill wrote. “Change is constant. We need to be mindful of that. We can’t get stuck in ruts. We need to continue to listen. Our youth are growing up in an entirely different dynamic than I did. “

Riley, a moderate candidate and incumbent trustee, is a real estate broker and the mother of two adult children who graduated from the Columbia Falls schools. Riley told the Beacon that over more than 30 years, she has gained extensive experience working on parent-teacher committees, volunteering in local schools and serving on the school board, which she was first elected to in 1995.

In an email interview, Riley said her main priorities for her next term on the board include increasing individualized learning opportunities, ensuring the district completes building upgrades and working to recruit and retain high-quality staff members.

“We know that there are many different learning styles amongst the students who we serve; our teachers need to have the flexibility and support to meet each child where they are and structure a learning process that allows them to maximize their growth,” Riley wrote. “When we find the ‘fit’ for learning, kids get excited and enjoy learning for what comes next.”

Upton, who will begin her first term on the board, is a small business owner and the mother of two children — a son who attends Columbia Falls High School and a daughter who is a recent graduate. Upton received endorsements from the Flathead County Republicans and from Republican Columbia Falls Rep. Braxton Mitchell, a graduate of Columbia Falls High School.

In a letter published in the Hungry Horse News, Mitchell called Upton “a staunch conservative” who “will stand up against Critical Race Theory, common core, and other left-wing ideologies that are being pushed in our classrooms” and “support a curriculum that aides all students in becoming successful, not indoctrinated.”

Upton said she hopes to raise teacher pay, improve the safety and security of school facilities and increase parental involvement in schools during her first term on the board.

“Being involved in the education of my children has always been important to me and a responsibility I am passionate about. The opportunity to seek a trustee position is valuable because I can be directly involved,” Upton wrote.

School district officials reported that 2,737 ballots were returned — a 27% voter turnout rate. The results of the election will be officially certified by the Board of Trustees at their May 8 meeting.

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