A Surprise Challenge

Conservative candidates take on incumbents for seats on a Montana community college's board, ending tradition of uncontested and uncontroversial elections.
April 22, 2011

A handful of conservative candidates are challenging a relatively apolitical group of incumbents for control of a rural Montana community college’s board of trustees, politicizing what is typically a sleepy and often uncontested spring election for the body.

Among other stances, the challengers hold that the college relies far too much on federal funding — one has gone as far as to argue that Pell Grants are unconstitutional — and that the college’s faculty and staff should not have the right to collectively bargain for their salary or benefits. The views and campaign rhetoric of the challengers have upset and angered the incumbents, many of whom have never faced electoral opposition. They are now fighting back by defending their records and painting their challengers as radicals who want to force their ideology on an unsuspecting community college in order to get ahead politically.

Four of the seven seats on the Flathead Valley Community College Board of Trustees are up for grabs on May 3. The nearly 60,000 registered voters of Flathead County, bordering Canada in the northwest portion of Montana, will vote for representatives to their county’s school board that day as well. But the first contested spots to the college’s board of trustees in three election cycles have dominated local interest in the upcoming election.

Thursday, a story in The Missoulian detailed a “well-attended” candidates’ forum held earlier in the week. Mark Holston, a trustee who is not up for re-election and a former Flathead Valley faculty member, argued that the string of challengers, who filed paperwork at nearly the last possible minute, all appear to be running in an attempt to gain a majority on the college’s board and push an extreme political agenda.

“Their sudden interest smacks of political opportunism and begs the question: Will this community stand for such a naked takeover attempt by candidates whose philosophies are so far out of the mainstream?” Holston, former chair of the county’s Democratic Party, told the local newspaper.

The highest-profile challenger for a spot on the board is Ed Berry, an atmospheric physicist who runs his own meteorological consulting firm — which, among other goals, seeks to scientifically refute the idea that humans are causing global warming. But Berry, who identifies as a political conservative and shares his support of Tea Party candidates and causes on his personal blog, told Inside Higher Ed that his candidacy for the college’s board has little to do with politics.

“I got into this thing because I thought I could help the college,” said Berry. He charged that Holston and the incumbents on the board are trying to paint him and the four other challengers (there are two challengers for one seat) he convinced to run for the board “into a right-wing corner” in order to make them “look bad.” Berry argued that his advanced degrees and experience in the fields of mathematics and science could greatly help the college. He is highly critical of Flathead Valley’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics offerings.

“Today, there are six software engineering jobs in Bozeman, Montana … and there is no graduate from any Montana college or university who is qualified to take these jobs,” claimed Berry, adding that he wants the college to stay ahead of the curve with its high-tech offerings. “That doesn’t speak well for education…. There is something missing when we don’t have the kind of people available to take these jobs.”

When talking about what he would like to change at the community college, Berry said he would like faculty to conduct research, in the way that faculty at larger four-year institutions do, to help the institution generate new sources of revenue from grants and private corporations. He also said he does not think that unions in the public sector, including those representing faculty and staff at the college, should have the right to collectively bargain for their salary or benefits. Flathead Valley currently has collective bargaining agreements with its classified employees, adjunct faculty and full-time faculty; the agreements are set to expire in June.

Another challenger, with whom Berry became acquainted through local conservative organizations and encouraged to run, is Tim Baldwin, a lawyer who heads a group called the Liberty Defense League. Baldwin describes himself as a libertarian and acknowledges that he has ambitions of running for higher office. His goals include weaning the college off federal funds.

“The U.S. Constitution didn’t envision federal monies being used in state education,” said Baldwin, who noted that he believes funds like Pell Grants are unconstitutional, in part, because of the requirements made of institutions that accept them. “I wouldn’t want to cut all federal funding [immediately] but give the vision to people of [the college] becoming more independent.”

Tom Harding, the 21-year incumbent trustee whom Berry is challenging — a self-identified Democrat — said he does not think Berry’s political beliefs, or those of the four other candidates he encouraged to run for the board, would be beneficial in leading the college.

“I don’t apologize for taking federal dollars,” said Harding, who is a retired local businessman and a Vietnam combat veteran. “And I say the same thing with [regard to] Pell Grants and the same thing with Stafford Loans. We wouldn’t have gotten where we are now without those federal resources we’ve had.”

Harding added that he was “hurt” by the challengers' implication that he and the incumbents have not been doing a good job. Flathead Valley, which now has an enrollment of 2,100 full-time equivalent students, has seen 40 percent enrollment growth over the past four years.

“We handled it,” said Harding of the enrollment increase amid dwindling financial resources. He also said that the college has done an “excellent job” serving a community with nearly 14 percent unemployment, helping locals train for new jobs.

But Harding said he is offended perhaps most of all by the personal remarks about him that appear on Berry’s blog.

“What can we say?” reads a post on Berry’s blog about Harding and the other incumbents. “Harding has been on the Board since 1990 and he never was qualified to be on a college board. There is absolutely nothing Harding can offer to lead a college into the future. He should withdraw from this election.”

Shannon Lund, an account representative for Xerox and another of the incumbents being challenged, is also a target of Berry’s criticism. Lund was appointed by the board just last month to fill a vacancy for a colleague who fell ill and resigned from his position. Berry argues that the board’s tapping of Lund mere weeks prior to the election for the spot she was filling was a tactic meant to allow the board to make its own appointments rather than face an open election for a seat with no incumbent.

Lund said she applied for the open position, prior to the election, because she is an “active volunteer” in the community and wanted to “become involved with the college.” She has no direct connection to the college, other than the fact her daughter once took a summer course there to transfer back to her home college, but said she wanted to help it because of “all the wonderful things” it has done in the community.

Though Lund is so new to the board that she does not have a record to speak of, she is upset at a remark about her qualifications that appears on Berry’s blog.

“Shannon is married to Tom Lund who is branch president of Rocky Mountain Bank in Kalispell,” reads a post on Berry’s blog about the incumbents. “Since voters cannot remove Robert Nystuen, president of Glacier Bank, until 2014, electing Shannon would put the influence of two local Montana banks on the FVCC Board of Trustees. How much banker influence do voters want making policy for their college?”

Lund added that she is “not really comfortable with being put out there in front of everybody” and “being political” but said that she feels it is her “duty” to do what she can “to stay in this position” and keep her challengers out.

“These are not elections where many people get out and vote,” Lund said. “We just need to say to people, ‘We know you’re happy with the way things are going at the college, now get out and vote.' I haven’t heard from anyone who says they are mad at the college.”

Jane Karas, president of Flathead Valley, offered very limited comment about the contested election for her college’s board. She simply encouraged locals to make sure to vote.

"We appreciate when members of our community express interest in the college,” Karas wrote in an e-mail. “Each year, FVCC notices the open trustee seats and welcomes candidates to file. As a college that values education and diversity, we strongly encourage the public to learn about the candidates and vote in the election."

The local unions for the college’s classified staff, adjunct faculty and full-time faculty interviewed the candidates Thursday evening and will soon make their endorsements. Numerous other faculty and staff members from the institution contacted by Inside Higher Ed declined to comment on the trustee election.


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