The Missoula County Schools’ Board of Trustees acts as a non-partisan organization, with candidates running unaffiliated with any political party and board business conducted outside of traditional red and blue party lines. But a recent hearing involving a controversial video has drawn the ire of Missoula County Democrats and moved the board’s actions into the political arena.
The controversy began in October, when Kathleen Kennedy, a science teacher at Big Sky High School, showed her class The Story of Stuff, a 20-minute video about sustainability. One student’s father, Mark Zuber, thought the video was biased and ill-suited for Kennedy’s Wildlife Biology class, and lobbied the school district to take action against her.
The complaint went to the district’s Challenged Education Resources Committee, which concluded that the video was appropriate to Kennedy’s curriculum and the age of her students. Zuber appealed to the Board of Trustees. At a contentious hearing on Jan. 29, Zuber laid out his argument against the video. Four hours after the meeting began, the board voted 4-3 to side with Zuber. Kelley Hirning, Rick Johns, Drake Lemm and James Sadler voted with Zuber. Adam Duerk, Toni Rehbein and Nancy Pickhardt voted against him.
On Feb. 10, the Missoula County Democrats weighed in at their regular monthly meeting. The group passed a resolution condemning the board’s vote “as incompatible with a quality public education, which is a core value of Missoula County Democrats, the state of Montana and the United States of America.”
As justification, the resolution cites the Resources Committee’s earlier vote in favor of Kennedy, the personal attacks against Kennedy at the meeting and the necessity of teaching students critical thinking skills. The resolution also calls The Story of Stuff “a well-documented argument about important ecological issues that are well within the scope of a biology curriculum.”
Jim Dayton, chair of the Missoula County Democrats, says his organization took action on what he deems as an attack from conservatives.
“We have never taken a very strong position on the school board,” Dayton says. “Well, now we have political people making political decisions on what happens in the classroom.”
Although Zuber says the research and preparation of his presentation to the board was all his own, Dayton claims the complaint underscores a larger problem.
“This is an attack from the political right,” Dayton says. “This isn’t some individual parent necessarily coming in. This is happening all the time. The very next day the parent was on right wing talk radio bragging about how he was able to come in and have this happen. This isn’t some benign attack. This is a political attack on the public education system. Ours is nothing but a response. Somebody has to be out there looking out for the teachers.”
Local Republicans disagree with Dayton’s take on the situation. Will Deschamps, chair of the Missoula County Republicans, denies politics played any part in the Kennedy decision and questions why the Dems have picked this fight.
“I think the political parties ought to stay the heck out of it,” says Deschamps. “Those trustees are elected officials and they’re doing what they ran and were elected to do. It must be a slow day down at Democrat headquarters. If people want to go after trustees as a parent or a taxpayer, that’s one thing, but political parties have no business in this thing.”
Two of the trustees who voted against Kennedy—Johns and Sadler—are up for reelection in May. Dayton says that the Democrats aren’t actively searching out opponents for those seats, but if the right people step forward, Dayton’s organization will support them.
“This is a non-partisan election,” he says. “If we have somebody who steps forward and says they’re going to run for the school board in those districts, and they’re intelligent and unbiased and they’re for curriculum and not going to be attacking teachers on political issues, we’ll support them. We’re not necessarily looking for Democrats. We’re looking for good people who can go into the school board, and be fair.”
Although political organizations are now weighing in, among the first to call attention to the board’s decision were the students themselves. Part of Zuber’s argument against the showing of The Story of Stuff is that some high school students don’t possess the critical thinking skills to differentiate between fact and propaganda. But the students who showed up at the Feb. 10 school board meeting certainly thought critically of the board’s decision.
“If my generation is the future, censorship is only setting us up to fail,” said Hellgate senior Ana Beard when asking the board to reevaluate its decision.
To help prepare for their testimony, some of the students sought the advice of Forward Montana, a grassroots progressive organization based in Missoula.
“Most people haven’t ever spoken to a city council or a school board or a legislative committee meeting, and that can be an intimidating thing,” says Executive Director Matt Singer. “So we helped them through the process of testimony at a public meeting.”
Singer stresses he didn’t help write the students’ testimony, but adds that he continues to work with the students at their behest.
“We’re working with them to overturn the decision,” Singer says.
Part of Singer’s advice to the students includes understanding the ins and outs of Robert’s Rules of Order, the parliamentary procedure followed during school board meetings. The rules require a member of the voting majority to overturn a decision, which means one of the four members who voted against Kennedy would need to reintroduce the issue to the full board. The Missoula County Dems point out that five board members missed the pivotal vote and should have the opportunity to weigh in.
“If this school board has any sense of fairness,” says Dayton, “they’ll see that four people out of 12 is an inappropriate body for a decision like this.