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Whitefish School District election features five trustee candidates

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Whitefish Pilot | April 20, 2022 3:00 AM

Editor's note: This Q&A article was compiled by Whitefish Pilot editor Whitney England. All responses are in the words of the candidates and edited only for style.

In the 2022 Whitefish School District election, there are five trustee candidates running for two open positions. Two incumbents, Darcy Schellinger and Elizabeth Pitman, are seeking reelection while three new candidates are also running.

The election will be held on May 3 at the Whitefish School District Board Room, 600 East Second Street. The election is in person this year and the polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on May 3 for residents to cast their vote. Ballots for those registered as absentee should have already hit the mailboxes in Whitefish and are due back to the Whitefish School District Office by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

For more information on the election call the district office at 862-8640.

Candidates listed in alphabetical order by last name:

Bobee J. Hyland

Age: 39

Occupation: Dentist (disabled due to a hand injury), stay-at-home mom

Family: I am married to my high school sweetheart; we have four children, ages 5-14.

Background: Doctor of Dental Surgery from the University of Minnesota; Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Gustavus Adolphus College; Former CEO and CFO of multiple dental offices; former President and VP of Austin Youth Hockey Association; former assistant high school hockey coach; former volunteer EMT and firefighter; volunteer for North Valley Search and Rescue.

Why are you running for school board?

Children are the future of our country, and I believe it is essential for their success to provide them with a solid educational foundation that is instruction-based and not agenda-driven. I am running for the Whitefish School Board to bring the community together with a common goal of protecting the innocence of children while ensuring they have access to a quality education.

Why are you the best candidate for this position and what will you bring to the board if elected?

My children will be attending school in the Whitefish district for the next 13 consecutive years. I will have a child in every school in the district for the next five years. I have daily interactions with students, parents, teachers and the community that provide a boots on the ground perspective. In addition, I have extensive business experience dealing with budgets, personnel and scheduling, and I have held many volunteer roles in the community. I understand the importance of working as a team and invite differences in opinion which results in more creative problem-solving.

What is the most important issue(s) facing the Whitefish School District right now and how would you work to address it?

The recent pandemic has resulted in a very divided community. Voices on all sides have felt unheard. We have lost sight of the value in bringing people together rather than driving them apart. It’s time to bring back compassion, kindness and compromise to the table, fostering relationships along the way. My goal is to reunite our district with the common goal of doing what is best for our children, which is ultimately what is best for society as a whole. Parents and teachers should be allowed and encouraged to have input, and their concerns should not be ignored. While we cannot change the past, we have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and build a better future. I will stand up for our children, parents and teachers by seeking to level the playing field for all.


Leanette Kearns

Age: 35

Occupation: Restaurant server and parent

Family: Two daughters ages 3 and 6

Background: Bachelor’s in sociology at Stanford University, volunteer mediation and board member Harvard Mediation Program, data management for evaluation department in educational nonprofit, directing and teaching after school leadership program, currently working in the service industry, Girl Scout troop leader, producing and acting in a play with Montana Art Theater, board member of CRYJ (Center for Restorative Youth Justice).

Why are you running for school board?

Serving my community and being involved in building and shaping my community in positive ways is important to me. It’s why I am on the board of CRYJ, why I became a Girl Scout leader, and why I am giving my time and energy to work on a play about social issues in our community. And out of the variety of ways to participate in building and shaping my community, serving on the school board is a great fit given my skills and experiences.

Why are you the best candidate for this position and what will you bring to the board if elected?

Diverse perspectives are crucial in order to govern a community in a representative way. As a parent of young children, working in the service industry and a woman of color, it’s clear this perspective is absent in our community’s leadership.

However, I don’t claim my diverse perspective is what qualifies me alone for this position. My mediation skills are needed during such divided times. My degree from an elite university demonstrates my commitment to providing pathways to higher education for all students. And my experience in after-school programming gives me insight into the daily challenges faced by our staff and teachers.

What is the most important issue(s) facing the Whitefish School District right now and how would you work to address it?

Accommodating growth, utilizing resources efficiently and student mental health are important challenges our school district has been facing. Attracting and housing teachers and support staff is becoming more of a challenge and we need to think of community-based solutions. The board should consider creative options, such as involvement in affordable housing at the city level, or spearheading their own housing initiatives.

Utilizing resources efficiently can be challenging. Our school district can look to other nearby districts and learn from how they use their funding to support programs for students who are in the most need of intervention and adapt our strategies accordingly.

During the pandemic and these generally difficult times, young people’s mental health has suffered. Suicide rates have increased. I applaud the board’s decision to use COVID recovery funds for mental health resources, and there should be continued effort to look at factors impacting students and solutions at a systemic level. The queer community has become a targeted group recently and this should be addressed at the district level.


Jenny Paatalo

Age: 44

Occupation: Stay-at-home mom

Family: Married to Bill Paatalo; three kids and one due this week.

Background: Studied music at Cornish College of the Arts, political science at Oregon State University and various community colleges.

Why are you running for school board?

During the pandemic, a group of average, common people on the school board unanimously took unprecedented action to usurp control from parents over their children's bodies. As the pandemic narrative on masking and jabs unravels, it's clear our children were subject to political agendas and not health measures. There should never be a policy void of faith and trust in the parents who love these children. No just policy has within its construction the power to excuse child abuse and violation from its effects, whether through denial, ignoring, or in the name of a false, or even a true premise.

Why are you the best candidate for this position and what will you bring to the board if elected?

I will strive to bring creative solutions to ensure fair and just policy, and reject policies that create more problems. The board should support all parents, despite personal differences. Support should materialize into meaningful accommodation. I don't have a dog in the fight to control families, my dog is in the fight to raise kids the way parents see fit and protect the rights of others to do the same. Transparency of politically charged curriculum is a must, but not enough. Parents should have ultimate power to remove their children from adverse educational influences particularly when debate isn't permitted.

What is the most important issue(s) facing the Whitefish School District right now and how would you work to address it?

I am not privy to the inside workings of the schools, and all my dealings with any staff have exceeded my expectations. My concern lies with the willingness of the board to step on the rights of parents.

From the outside looking in, Whitefish is a contentious area because we have so many people strongly anchored in opposing beliefs. I believe the most important issue facing the district right now is whether it has lost the ability to protect the kids from political divisiveness within the community and the country.

It's a tumultuous time, and we must fight against the spirit of the age's attempt to create a new normal for our kids. We must eradicate the pop politics of the public square to preserve their innocence so they can put their energy into building skills to achieve after high school and build a life for themselves.


Elizabeth Pitman (incumbent)

Age: 38

Occupation: Veterinarian

Family: I am very lucky to have my parents and siblings close by and I have a niece and nephew in the Whitefish Schools.

Background: Born and raised in Whitefish, graduating from Whitefish High School in 2002; Bachelor of Arts in history at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. I have served four months as a school trustee, mentored students by providing “shadowing” experiences in the veterinary field and volunteering annually for Expanding Your Horizons, a national STEM event to introduce girls to careers and role models in their communities. As an accomplished soccer player, I have helped local soccer teams by assisting in coaching.

Why are you running for school board?

As a current board member, my interest in this position begins with my strong belief in our public school system and our community as a whole. Not only did I receive excellent academic preparation from Whitefish schools, it also provided a safe and caring place for me to be myself and grow into a productive community member. It is my desire is to see Whitefish continue to strive for the highest degree of success for all its students — no matter where their paths may lead.

Why are you the best candidate for this position and what will you bring to the board if elected?

I am a Whitefish native and graduate of Whitefish Schools; I greatly value the educational opportunities offered by our schools. Being a veterinarian in our community provides me with the ability to interact with diverse community members on a daily basis. Pet exams oftentimes turn into conversations about our lives, families and various community topics.

Whitefish Schools have strong community support and I can use my open line of communication to continue to make the community feel connected and engaged. Finally, bringing a science background to the board offers another perspective of data interpretation and problem-solving.

What is the most important issue(s) facing the Whitefish School District right now and how would you work to address it?

Our community is experiencing unprecedented growth and this increase in population impacts our students and our staff. High school enrollment is already nearing capacity. Affordable housing is an issue for many in the community, and this includes school personnel. As real estate prices accelerate, finding affordable homes for school employees is becoming more difficult. The School Board needs to engage with other community groups to find solutions for our housing issues.

The mental, emotional and physical well-being of our students, staff and entire community have been impacted by living with a pandemic for the last two years. The support, compassion and care we have shown each other as a community needs to continue as we deal with ongoing issues relating to the pandemic. As a board, we must continue to provide stability and continuity in our schools as well as realistic and open discussions about anxiety, depression and suicide.


Darcy Schellinger (incumbent)

Age: 43

Occupation: Stay-at-home mom; previously worked in agriculture, mortgage and commercial lending

Family: Husband Kyle is a Whitefish High School alum, daughter seventh grade at Whitefish Middle School, and son fourth grade at Muldown Elementary.

Background: Current Vice Chair for Whitefish School District School Board. Prior to becoming a trustee I actively attended Whitefish School District board meetings and work sessions. Volunteer at Muldown Elementary. Previously served on the Whitefish Rotary board, Children’s House Montessori and Flathead Youth Home boards. Attended public schools in Billings; obtained a business finance degree from Montana State University in Bozeman.

Why are you running for school board?

I am running for reelection as there is a direct correlation between high student achievement outcomes and low board member turnover. I am committed to Whitefish kids and all the dedicated, talented professionals who support them. In spite of the pandemic, our high school is ranked number two in the state and our reading and math scores are on the upswing across every grade level in the district. The overwhelming majority of our students are involved in clubs and sports — our kids and our schools are thriving and I believe that is at least partially due to a dedicated school board.

Why are you the best candidate for this position and what will you bring to the board if elected?

School Board governance is a non-partisan position that carries a wide range of responsibilities and duties. There is no room for a narrow focus or agenda. I am not only familiar with all the topics that need to be addressed, but I will also continue to put my energy into providing a welcoming and enriching education for all students and creating a positive working environment for our staff. I have three years of experience, which brings existing positive relationships with staff and the community. I will continue to promote open and honest communication, enrichment for students and mental health programs.

What is the most important issue(s) facing the Whitefish School District right now and how would you work to address it?

The top challenges currently facing the district are issues related to the pandemic, growth of the student population and affordable housing. In my opinion, the most significant challenge is coming out of the pandemic both academically and emotionally. For reference, kindergarteners in 2020 who are now in second grade have never experienced a “normal” school year due to Covid.

The need to provide additional educational and mental health support is a top priority for me. This can be done by continuing to responsibly spend covid funding to remedy these issues. The high school is almost at student capacity with the growth of our community. The need to consider expanding the high school and requesting a bond from the voters is impending for the district.

Lastly, the lack of affordable housing is having a direct impact on hiring and retaining staff. The district is engaged with leaders in the community to work towards affordable housing solutions.

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Bobee Hyland

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Leanette Kearns

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Jenny Paatalo

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Elizabeth Pitman

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Darcy Schellinger