BILLINGS — The Billings School Board has been in the spotlight more in the last year than maybe in the last decade combined. From mask mandates to book bans to the recent Emily Pennington decision, the issues have stoked widespread community engagement and led to a number of new school board candidates.
"This is parents rising up to make sure their voices are heard because their school board was not listening," said Jenna McKinney back in August 2021.
McKinney's comments came at a Billings rally protesting SD2 Superintendent Greg Upham’s decision to reinstate a mandatory masking policy in Billings schools. A community group founded Make Masking Optional, and that group is now endorsing four new school-board candidates: Shannon Johnson, Chad Nelson, Kristen Gilfeather, and Jon VonLangen.
“I’m running for school trustee because I don’t feel like my kids’ needs have been put first," VonLangen said in a video posted on the MMO website.
"If they disagree with what the schools have been doing, they feel more motivated because they're more frustrated, they're more angry," said Lee Banville, "and they want to act."
Banville has been a University of Montana faculty member for 13 years, and covered politics for 13 years before that. This time in America is unlike any he’s seen.
"Because those policies are so tangible and so frankly loaded," he said, "I think you’re seeing a lot more political activism up and down the ballot, in a way that we haven’t seen in a generation."
In all four races, the Billings Education Association has endorsed the opposite candidate: Brian Yates, Scott McCullouch, Zach Terakedis, and Teresa Larsen. Larsen and Shannon Johnson are running in Zone 3, which is being vacated by retiring board chair Greta Besch Moen. Moen and Terakedis were two of the three trustees to vote against changing the district’s age-out policy from 19 to 20 in the Pennington case.
"I really do feel bad about any negative feedback you have received in the community," Emily's mother Jana Pennigton said at an April school board meeting.
Meetings have often become contentious over these issues, a lot to handle for an unpaid volunteer position. That’s a big reason this is the first year since 2015 that there’s been a single contested race.
But one of the most life-changing events in our lifetime apparently supersedes that.
"If there’s one reason that you see a such in political activism, it’s the fallout from COVID," Banville said. "The policies the government enacted with an eye towards safety were seen by many people as an attack on freedom."