Petitioners Call for Whitefish School Board Recall, But Board Chair Says He Claims To Be An Unfounded Distraction



A group of Whitefish parents and community members tried to recall the entire Whitefish school board following a Covid mitigation decision, but the school board said it followed the law of l ‘State.

The group was disappointed with an August decision on the district’s Covid plan that included forcing young students to wear masks, but organizer Jenny Paatalo says the problem behind the recall lies in the way the council led the meeting by claiming that the council did not follow laws regarding public comment.

Whitefish School Board President Katie Clarke said the board has followed all processes in accordance with Montana education laws that dictate how school board meetings are conducted. She told the pilot on Monday that the board of directors held the August 12 meeting in which the decision was made on Covid mitigation measures in exactly the same way they held all the meetings and thought that the petition that initiated the recall contained inaccurate information.

In the motion for revocation, filed by Paatalo, it is stated that the board of directors violated the “right of participation section” of the Montana Constitution, which states that the public has a right to expect from government agencies that ‘they offer “a reasonable opportunity for citizen participation” before a final decision.

The petition says that prior to the council’s decision, but after the public comment period ended, the council “misrepresented” the results of surveys the district used to survey families and school staff regarding strategies for education. Covid mitigation. After the board of trustees redefined the survey results which addressed a range of possibilities from optional face coverings to requiring masks for all grade levels, the petition says the board did not allow public comments on the matter.

The group recently gained approval from the Flathead County Election Department to collect signatures for the petition. They must collect 2,391 voters’ signatures on seven separate documents, one for each director, by December 29 to move on to the next steps in the recall process.

By the end of last week, the group had collected 250 signatures.

Whether the petition collects enough signatures, it is not entirely clear what will happen next. County election officials said they were taking the process step by step, as they had never dealt with a recall before.

The Montana School Board Association is taking no position on the desirability of a recall election, says association director Lance Melton, who has practiced school law for more than 25 years. However, Melton says that if the petition collects enough signatures, it will likely end up in Flathead County District Court to determine if it is legally sufficient.

Part of the petition centers on the council’s discussion of the results of a survey sent out by the school district over the summer regarding the potential requirement to wear masks for the current school year.

The survey had 832 responses and people could select more than one option they could support. The results were 479 votes for an optional approach, 79 supported masks recommended for all levels, 128 were comfortable wearing K-6 masks, and 270 wanted masks required for all.

The petition states that when the council 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 it’s not just a question of whether or not to impose masks, but also how the board behaved during the meeting.

“We are a group of parents who were really disappointed with the conduct of the school board at the August 12 meeting,” she recently told the Pilot. “The subject was covered up, but what I submitted to the Flathead Election Department was that they violated the participatory right of the Montana Constitution, which is a law that governs meetings. public. It gives people the right to have expectations of a reasonable process of participation.

The board meeting included several hours of public commentary, and more than 40 people on both sides of the masking issue provided their views during the public comment period.

Clarke said the board was voting on COVID-19 mitigation measures at this meeting, not the results of the investigation, and for that matter, he allowed a public comment period and has therefore given the possibility to the participation of citizens.

She said the board can’t officially comment on the recall petition without holding a public meeting to discuss it, but as chair of the board, she is disappointed with the group leading the effort to reminder.

“It is unfortunate that a small group of people are spreading misinformation and trying to provoke a sense of further instability in an already inherently volatile time,” Clarke said.

“We will remain focused on defending children and their right to continue to advance in their education,” she added. “We are so proud of each of our students and of all the progress they have made over the past 18 months despite these difficult times.

Paatalo says the council misrepresented poll results after the public comment closed by saying that “recommended” is the same as “mandate” in terms of wearing masks.

“We were all really shocked, a lot of us were, but at the time we were excluded from public comment, so we couldn’t say we disagree that recommending means the same as necessary, ”recalls Paatalo.

Paatalo says she drafted the petition and it was reviewed by the Election Department who consulted with the county attorney’s office before determining that the group had merit in starting to collect signatures.

Paatalo and the signature collectors group are associated with the “Take Back Whitefish” Facebook page, an anti-mask group that has been staging protests on street corners in Whitefish since council approved the recommendation to require masks to be worn. school for kindergarten to grade 6. students.

Paatalo hopes to raise funds to publicize the recall effort so that more people are aware of the petition and why the group of community members supporting the petition is angry with the school board.

“A lot of people think it’s just masks,” Paatalo said.

“There is actually a real problem with representative government – people were marginalized and they were not represented,” she added. “We therefore want to bring the community’s attention back to the legal aspect and not necessarily to the debate on politicized masks.”

Clarke says that in her opinion the petition is unfounded. But true or not, she sees the petition as a time-consuming distraction that the district and school board should devote to improving children’s education.

Melton said if this petition goes ahead, those involved will have an opportunity to see whether the allegations in the petition stand up to legal scrutiny in the courts.

There are laws that must be followed and especially in the case of school districts regarding recall elections, Melton notes, adding that the district clerk should be the one who receives these petitions and assesses them for their effectiveness.

Because the petition was not filed with the school district clerk, Melton wonders if the petition was properly filed under the law.

State law states that “recall requests for elected officers must be filed with the official who is provided by law to accept the declaration of appointment or the request for appointment for such a position.” The district clerk is the person who accepts nominations in general school elections.

“The question becomes, can someone just say they violated the bylaws and therefore hold a recall election, and the court said no,” Melton said, referring to case law that dealt with the elections of reminder. “What they are actually saying is that the legislature is limited to the grounds for recall, and they have given the district court the power to determine the legal sufficiency of the allegations in the recall petition.”


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