Friday, May 14, 2021

School board trustee candidates share perspectives

Whitefish Pilot | April 22, 2021 1:45 PM

Editor's note: This story originally ran in the April 14, 2021 edition of the Whitefish Pilot.

Five candidates are running for the Whitefish School Board.

The election is May 4 and the mail-in ballots were sent out on April 16.

Trustees serve in staggered three-year terms. Current trustees Ruth Harrison and Betsy Kohnstamm both decided not to run for reelection.

For more information on ballots, contact the Whitefish School District office at 862-8640.

Quincy Bennetts

Quincy Bennetts is a Montana native who feels indebted to her community of Whitefish and also has an eagerness to put her own skills and personal qualities to use for the betterment of local public schools.

Bennetts grew up in Great Falls and her father was a school teacher for 40 years. She had a great public schooling experience all the way from kindergarten through her postsecondary education at University of Montana, and knows her education has allowed her many opportunities in life. That’s something she believes every child should have.

“I feel this pay it forward, as far as I’m incredibly grateful for my career and my education that I received as part of a Montana public school system that allows me to have the life I have today; I want that for every kid.”

Bennetts and her family moved to the Flathead Valley in 2004, then settled into Whitefish 10 years later. She and her husband Joel Shehan have one son in third grade at Muldown Elementary and the family enjoys being in the outdoors, especially hiking and paddle boarding. She also works full time as a pediatric physical therapist at Montana Children’s in Kalispell.

Bennetts says she was inspired to run for school board for a number of reasons including wanting to help make sure every child has access to an excellent education. But one main reason is to give back to the community.

In 2017 she said her family had a tough time after her husband was involved in a tragic avalanche accident in Glacier National Park. A close family friend, Ben Parsons, passed away from the accident and Bennetts says the community of Whitefish stepped up to support her family during the hardship.

“It was just humbling and incredible the amount of initiation random people who we’d never met took to reach out…” she recalled. “And just very subtly, but very intentionally took care of us.”

She said although her family felt they had roots in Whitefish long before that, the actions of the community solidified those feelings. Since then she’s wanted to find a way she could leverage her skillset and contribute to the betterment of the community — running for school board seemed like a great opportunity to do just that.

Bennetts expressed great respect for the current board members, administrators, district staff and everyone already involved in the district.

“I definitely want to come with the intention of open mindedness to the position,” she said. “There’s people who have been on the board and dedicated educators who are in the trenches that I want to hear from to learn what they view as the priorities first.”

However she does believe a huge concern facing the school district is continuing to recover from the educational setbacks and emotional disturbances to students caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How do we all catch up after the last year to two years of interrupted educational experiences and make sure we’re serving all these kids — not just their educational needs but the extreme stress and emotional burden that they’ve been carrying,” she said.

She acknowledges the challenges the pandemic caused in the educational setting, but also respects the decisions the district made by implementing the hybrid in person and online model.

“I do not envy those decisions they had to make,” she said. “I feel like the hybrid model was a balance of the needs of maintaining safety as well as recognizing in-person education is invaluable.”

Lastly she added that with skills she’s obtained through her career combined with her hardworking attitude she knows she could make a positive impact if elected to the board.

“I am very dedicated; if I decide to do something I give it my all,” she said. “I’ll show up prepared and do the very best I can to represent all the needs of the varying parties.”

David Diehl

David Diehl is a retired U.S. Air Force command pilot and colonel who moved his family to Whitefish in July 2020.

Three years ago the outdoor-loving family visited Whitefish and Glacier National Park while looking for a location to call home after Diehl retired from the military. After moving around a lot as a youngster himself, Diehl’s father was also in the Air Force, he wanted his two kids to attend one high school instead of moving several times.

After staying a week in Whitefish, Diehl says it just felt like home.

“We had a week at an Airbnb in Whitefish and just absolutely fell in love with it,” he said. “It has all the elements that makes it so appealing to all of us. Of course we’re outdoor enthusiasts, so that was the first appeal; then the great schools, the fantastic gym, the theater, the awesome town, the airport…”

Diehl and his wife Amina have two teenage kids currently attending Whitefish Middle School. Amina is also a science teacher at the middle school and a lawyer in the Air Force. David Diehl now works as a director of operations at RightOnTrek. From his service in the military he has a vast amount of senior leadership experience, most notably in the U.S. Embassy in two different countries — Thailand and Bolivia.

Although Diehl has never served on a school board before, he believes his leadership experience from his military career would be an asset to the Whitefish School Board.

He was inspired to run in the trustee election because of his desire to serve and give back to the community.

“First and foremost I just want to volunteer my time and energy to better the community,” he said. “I feel like I have the capacity and the will to give back.”

“Secondly… I really feel that childhood education sets the foundation for success in life.”

Diehl says one of his strongest qualities that he would contribute to the board is his ability to listen and his desire to hear all points of the issue before making any recommendations.

“I’ve been in senior leadership positions quite often and understand the difficulties presented,” he explained. “I feel like I’m a really good listener; I like to listen to all perspectives before weighing in on a decision.”

If elected he says his first task would just be to listen to the issues at hand and learn from the trustees, administrators and community members.

He added that other priorities for him as a trustee would include ensuring quality teaching materials and a supportive standardized curriculum for teachers, empowering kids to make their own decisions, supporting extracurricular programs and improving communication in parent-teacher relationships across the district.

“I don’t know what all our needs are right now, so first of all I want to be a sounding board and listen and learn,” Diehl said. “And I really am supportive of standardized curriculum to support teachers, but at the same time not constrain their ability to be flexible.”

As far as how the school district handled the COVID-19 pandemic, Diehl said he supported the district’s methodical approach to reopening schools. However, he would like to see that progression continue and figure out the next steps in returning kids to normalcy in the classroom.

“I believe the school district did the right thing in how they proceeded…” he said. “But now I think it’s time to continue along the same path in whatever the community and school district decide is the next marker. I think the next step is allowing kids to go to school without wearing masks, we need to work towards that goal.”

Leanette Kearns

Leanette Kearns has an understanding of schools and the challenges teachers, staff and students face daily. In the past she worked for a nonprofit that partnered with schools to deliver extended programming — this work helped her grow to recognize the struggles that teachers and students face daily.

In addition to her work with schools, she also has experience in mediation. Through this work she developed a skill set that she believes would be beneficial to have on the Whitefish School Board.

“I think that is a really important skill set that I’m bringing to the table because our job on the school board is listening to a bunch of varied positions and opinions of people that are not agreeing with each other,” Kearns said. “But do they leave the room feeling like they are heard and hopeful; I think I can offer that.”

Currently Kearns is a stay at home parent to two daughters ages 2 and 5. Her oldest daughter will start at Muldown in the fall. She and her husband enjoy everything outdoors from whitewater rafting to hiking to just being outside with their kids.

Kearns and her family moved to Whitefish in September 2020, although they have been coming to the area to visit often since her husband’s family has owned a cabin in Essex for many years. She also lived in Essex for a summer season working at the Snow Slip Inn in 2009.

Although new to living fulltime in Whitefish, Kearns didn’t want to wait any longer to get involved in the community. She says she always had a desire to get into local politics and government and knows she has a lot to offer in the role.

“I have a lot of skills and different perspectives and talents to offer in my service so I just felt really strongly that I should jump into that…” Kearns said. “I can get established in the community and serve it at the same time.”

An aspect of life that is really important to Kearns is that relationships matter. With COVID and the influx of new people in Whitefish, she sees that the community togetherness is starting to become divisive. Kearns would like to help mend that and wants to start by serving on the school board.

“One of the really important things to me has been understanding how much relationships matter and how we treat each other matters,” she said. “In the past year just seeing the way public discourse has evolved and how relationships in our communities have become so fractured, it made me rethink waiting (to get involved).”

When considering the issues facing the school district, COVID and continuing to adapt to the issues arising from the pandemic is definitely on her mind, she notes. But also with Whitefish Superintendent Dave Means only being a year into his new role and then a new principal starting at Muldown in the fall, she believes there will be challenges associated with the changes in leadership.

“There are some changes that just inevitably bring challenges because that is how new leadership works,” she expressed. “I think I’m really interested in vision and goal planning with the district and getting involved in that process.”

As far as how the district handled COVID-19 and reopening schools, she supports the decisions made regarding the hybrid teaching model.

“From everyone I talked to, this district worked hard to put in place what I would call an adaptive management approach…” she said. “Giving solid leadership direction along with flexibility, I think that’s kind of the best you can hope for.”

As the election approaches, Kearns hopes voters will keep in mind that although she’s new to living in Whitefish, she understands the community and just has a desire to serve for the betterment of local education.

“What really drew me here was the people that live here — they have these wonderful qualities of really fierce independence and strength, coupled with a very strong sense of community,” Kearns said. “When I talk about moving here and being in the school district, I understand that those values exist here, and I want to guard those and keep those.”

Todd Lengacher

Todd Lengacher has a vast amount of experience in education coupled with a strong desire to be involved in the community and local schools.

He spent 20 years as an educator, 10 of those in administration, and has a masters in mathematics. He’s worked in schools both domestically and internationally, helping to develop educational programs in 13 countries.

He also currently serves on the North Valley Food Bank and Whitefish Education Foundation boards, and is the executive director of the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Northwest Montana program.

Lengacher has long family ties to the valley as his inlaws have owned property on Flathead Lake for many years. While most recently living in Seattle, his family was coming out to the Flathead Valley more often and developing a stronger desire to stay in Montana.

Three years ago Lengacher and his family moved to Whitefish and chose this town specifically based on the size and the community.

“Having lived in different places, and living in Seattle, we were looking for a place where we could have more of a direct impact on the community…” he said. “Especially in Whitefish, it's a small community so your actions can have a direct and immediate impact.”

Lengacher and his wife Erica have one 8-year-old daughter and naturally they were looking for somewhere enjoyable to raise her. The family enjoys skiing, spending time outdoors and fishing, Lengacher himself says given a free day he would be out on a river fly fishing.

But in addition to those interests, Lengacher has an even stronger passion to serve in the local community. And given his background in education, he feels like the Whitefish School Board would be a good fit.

“Having spent so much time in education and that I am connected to it in different ways, going back to the thread of wanting to be involved in the community it’s a pretty obvious way given my work experience,” he said.

Lengacher added that he believes all involved in the school district right now are doing wonderful things, but given the support for schools in Whitefish the door is wide open for even more improvements.

“I see the school district doing lots of good work,” he said. “I just think there’s lots of possibilities for us to continue to be innovative given the relatively small size and the support for education in Whitefish.”

If elected, Lengacher says other priorities would include understanding the impact that the pandemic has had on education and also how it’s accelerated the income, education and Access gap within the community. And in addition, bringing more support and professional development to faculty.

He also would like to have a positive influence by helping to elevate the board itself.

“Study after study reveals that every school that is really excelling, by whatever metric, has a board that is excellent — by every metric,” he says. “As much as anything, I want to leverage my experience with schools and with boards to build the best and highest functioning board we possibly can.”

Over the last year, Lengacher says he supports the decisions the board made regarding reopening schools during the pandemic. His wife has a masters in public health and has been highly involved in infection mitigation in Montana during the pandemic. Being so close with the work she does, he supports the data-driven approach that the school district took.

“I think the school district did a great job taking it really seriously, doing its homework and trusting in data and science, which I really appreciate,” Lengacher said. “I think they did a really good job of managing an impossible situation.”

And looking forward he would welcome contributing to the board as a trustee as they make further decisions regarding the pandemic, such as decisions involving vaccinations.

“I’m actually looking forward to, if I were on the board, helping begin to make a plan for that,” he expressed. “And I feel well informed just given the proximity to my wife’s work.”

Emily Morrow

Emily Morrow believes that children are one of the most important demographics and has been committed to serving kids in many ways throughout her life.

Although she doesn’t have any children of her own yet, she loves spending time with kids and volunteering in programs serving youth. Her interest in children is a huge reason why she is running for a trustee seat on the Whitefish School Board.

“Any chance I get I love to spend time with children… Children are always the center of my life,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in the educational and artistic development of children. I come from a long line of teachers as well, children are just extremely important.

“I think they’re one of the most important demographics that we have and the best investment is in the development of a child,” she added.

Morrow has been a dancer her whole life and also enjoys going to restaurants and reading in her free time. She has a bachelor's in fine arts and communications, and currently working on her master's degree in professional counseling.

Morrow moved to Whitefish one year ago in search of a friendly place to settle down and potentially start a family. Although originally from Dallas, she was living in Las Vegas and was a dancer for Cirque du Soleil. An injury ended her professional dancing career, but opened up the opportunity to move somewhere new and start a dance school. She just opened her own studio called Whitefish School of Ballet and serves as the artistic director.

One of the things that drew her to Whitefish, which she discovered on a ski vacation with friends, was that people were friendly and the community

“It reminded me of home — people waved to me, they were friendly, they were genuine,” she said.

If elected to the school board, keeping that genuine community feel and engagement is one aspect she would prioritize. She says she wants to make sure everyone living here and moving here is treated like an individual, not just a number.

“I think we’re a growing economy in Whitefish; the challenge would be to serve every member of the community and know what their needs are because they’re coming from all different directions of the country,” Morrow said. “The biggest challenge is to meet the needs and bring kids to a place that’s up to speed with what we can give them as far as care and nurturing.”

And in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, Morrow supports the way the district handled reopening schools. She admitted that the board and administrators were in a tough situation and did the best they could at the time.

“I probably wish they had gone back to school (in-person) earlier, but I don’t fault them for being cautious,” she said. “I’m glad they didn’t go completely remote because the detriment of that I saw in a student I was helping.”

Morrow said she’s never served on a school board or other government board before, but has held plenty of leadership positions throughout her life. She said her personal qualities of commitment and loyalty will help her make a difference if she takes on this role.

“I’d bring a sense of leadership and sharing in ideas,” Morrow said. “I bring accountability, when I tell someone I’m going to do something, I do it; it doesn’t matter if it feels uncomfortable.”


Quincy Bennetts


David Diehl


Leanette Kearns


Todd Lengacher


Emily Morrow