Petitioners seek recall of Whitefish School Board, but board says claims unfounded distraction
The Whitefish School District office at Central School downtown. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)
Whitefish Pilot | November 3, 2021 1:00 AM
A group of Whitefish parents and community members have mounted an attempt to recall the entire Whitefish School Board over a decision regarding Covid mitigation, but the school board says it followed state law.
The group was left disappointed by an August decision regarding the district’s Covid plan that included requiring younger students to wear masks, but organizer Jenny Paatalo says the issue behind the recall is with how the board conducted the meeting claiming that the board didn’t follow laws regarding public comment.
Whitefish School Board Chair Katie Clarke says the board followed all the processes according to Montana education laws that dictate how school board meetings are conducted. She told the Pilot on Monday that the board conducted the Aug. 12 meeting where the decision was made regarding Covid mitigations in the exact same way they organize all meetings and believes the petition behind the recall includes inaccurate information.
In the petition for recall, filed by Paatalo, it states the board violated the “right of participation section” of the Montana Constitution, which says the public has the right to expect government agencies to afford “reasonable opportunity for citizen participation” prior to a final decision.
The petition says that prior to the board’s decision, but after the public comment period ended, the board “misrepresented” the results of surveys the district used to poll families and school staff regarding Covid mitigation strategies. After the board redefined the survey results which discussed a range of possibilities from optional face coverings to requiring masks for all grade levels, the petition states that the board did not allow public comment on the issue.
The group recently obtained approval from the Flathead County Election Department to gather signatures for the petition. They need to gather 2,391 voter signatures on seven separate documents, one for each trustee, by Dec. 29 to take the next steps in the recall process.
As of late last week, the group had gathered 250 signatures.
If the petition does gather enough signatures, it is not totally clear what would happen next. County election officials said they are taking the process step-by-step since they haven’t dealt with a recall before.
The Montana School Board Association does not take any position on whether a recall election should take place, says the association’s director Lance Melton who has been practicing school law for over 25 years. However, Melton says if the petition gathers enough signatures it is likely to end up in Flathead County District Court to determine whether it has legal sufficiency.
A portion of the petition centers on the discussion by the board about the results of a survey sent out by the school district over the summer regarding the potential requirement for wearing masks for the current school year.
The survey had 832 responses and people could select more than one option that they could support. The results were 479 votes for an optional approach, 79 supported masks recommended for all grades, 128 were comfortable with K-6 wearing masks and 270 wanted masks required for all.
The petition says when the board discussed the survey they defined the results as a 50-50 split when, according to Paatalo, the results were actually a 2/3 to 1/3 split in favor of a more optional approach to masks in schools.
Paatalo says this is not only about the issue of whether or not to mandate masks, but also the way the board conducted themselves during the meeting.
“We are a group of parents that were really disappointed about the conduct of the school board at the Aug. 12 meeting,” she recently told the Pilot. “The subject matter was masking, but what I submitted to the Flathead election department was that they violated the Montana Constitution right of participation, that is a law that governs open meetings. It gives people the right to have the expectations of a reasonable process of participation.”
The board meeting included several hours of public comment and more than 40 people on both sides of the masking issue gave their opinion during the public comment period.
Clarke says the board was voting on COVID-19 mitigation measures in that meeting, not survey results, and for that issue they allowed a public comment period and therefore gave opportunity for citizen participation.
She said the board cannot officially give a comment on the recall petition without holding a public meeting to discuss it, but as board chair, she’s disappointed in the group heading the recall effort.
“It’s unfortunate that a small group of people is spreading misinformation and attempting to cause an added sense of instability in an already inherently unstable time,” Clarke said.
“We’re going to remain focused on advocating for kids and their right to keep moving forward in their education,” she added. “We’re so proud of each of our students and all the progress they’ve made over the past 18 months in spite of these difficult times.”
Paatalo says the board misrepresented the results of the surveys after public comments were closed by saying that “recommended” is the same as “mandate” in terms of the wearing of masks.
“We were all really shocked, a lot of us parents were, but at the time we were locked out of public commenting so we couldn’t say we disagree that recommend means the same as required,” Paatalo recalled.
Paatalo says she crafted the petition and it was reviewed by the election department which consulted with the county attorney’s office before determining the group had merit to begin collecting signatures.
Paatalo and the group of signature gatherers are associated with the “Take Back Whitefish” Facebook page which is an anti-mask group that has organized protests on the street corners of Whitefish since the board approved the recommendation to require masks at school for K-6 students.
Paatalo is hoping to raise money to publicize the recall effort so more people become aware of the petition and the reasons why the group of community members backing the petition is upset with the school board.
“A lot of people think this is only about masks,” Paatalo said.
“There’s actually a real problem with the representative government — people were marginalized and they weren’t represented,” she added. “So we want to bring the community’s focus back to the legal aspect and not necessarily the politicized mask debate.”
Clarke says in her opinion the petition is unfounded. But founded or not, she sees the petition as a distraction that’s taking away time the district and school board should be spending working on bettering the education of children.
Melton said that if this petition progresses those involved would have the opportunity to see if the allegations in the petition stand up to legal scrutiny in court.
There are laws that have to be followed and specifically in the case of school districts regarding recall elections, Melton notes, adding that the district clerk should be the one to receive those petitions and assess them for their efficacy.
Because the petition was not filed with the school district clerk Melton questions if the petition was actually properly filed under the law.
State law says that “Recall petitions for elected officers shall be filed with the official who is provided by law to accept the declaration of nomination or petition for nomination for such office.” The district clerk is the individual that accepts nominations during the general school elections.
“The question becomes, can someone just say they violated the statutes and therefore have a recall election, and the court said no,” Melton said as he referenced a case law that dealt with recall elections. “What they actually say is the Legislature is limited to grounds for recall, and they’ve given the district court the power to determine the legal sufficiency of the allegations in the recall petition.”