KALISPELL - No candidate has challenged an incumbent on the Flathead Valley Community College Board of Trustees in the past two election cycles, so it's no surprise that last-minute filings by a slate of five candidates has raised eyebrows.
But the well-known political ideologies of several challengers has also generated widespread concern among community leaders, college founders and current trustees, who say the candidates represent a fringe political element and speculate that together they harbor a fundamentalist agenda.
At a well-attended candidates' forum Monday, the challengers reminded members of the public that board positions are nonpartisan, and said politics has nothing to do with their candidacies.
Candidate Ed Berry, an engineer and atmospheric physicist, said he based his decision to run on a desire to generate "fresh blood" among the trustees, and believes he would deliver a "new perspective" to a board that has grown stale and complacent through the years.
Berry is perhaps best known for his website, PolyMontana.com, a forum on which he disputes the "alarmist" science that climate change is human caused. He has also criticized the leadership of RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) in the Montana Legislature, and recently called for the resurgence of tea party Republicans in 2013.
Berry's educational background and accomplished career as a physicist surely qualifies him as an expert in the fields of science and mathematics, and he acknowledges that he holds certain political opinions dear.
But his candidacy, he said, has nothing to do with politics.
"The message circulating around town is there is a bunch of right-wing extremists trying to take over the college," said Berry, who is challenging incumbents Tom Harding and John Phelps for a three-year term in the Flathead High School District. "I would deny that. The candidates who are running aren't there to disrupt things at all. The intention of everyone I know is that if they are elected, they will use their experience and expertise to try to improve the college."
Berry moved to the Flathead Valley from Sacramento, Calif., several years ago and said he has had his eye on a trustee position ever since. When he learned last month that the May 3 election was approaching, he threw his name in the hat only to learn that filing had closed the day prior.
After researching election law, Berry learned that Montana statute allows community colleges to keep filing open up to 30 days prior to election, and FVCC officials extended the deadline to April 4.
"Since there were several other positions open, I started calling around and contacting friends I knew and encouraging them to run, too," Berry said.
A vocal supporter of the Republican tea party, Berry acknowledged he grew acquainted with the other candidates through conservative organizations like the Pachyderm Club and Freedom Action Rally; however, he said he urged them to run because of their qualifications, not their political ideology.
In addition to Berry, the challengers running for three of four open college trustee positions are: Tim Baldwin, an attorney and the son of Chuck Baldwin, the 2008 presidential nominee for the national Constitution Party; Michael Hebert, an insurance agent and former FVCC student; Roland Horst of Bigfork, where he is a board member of the Prolife Coalition; and Glenn Wehe of Columbia Falls, a board member on the Evergreen School District and an active supporter of Senate Bill 114, which would have given county sheriffs authority trumping that of the federal government.
They have filed against incumbents Tom Harding, a Flathead Valley native and a retired business owner; John Phelps, the former city attorney of Whitefish, now retired; and Shannon Lund, a medical technologist who was chosen last month to fill the trustee slot vacated by John Engebretson.
The challengers said they are running to offer their varied backgrounds and professional experience, and to bring about change to a board of incumbent trustees that saw no opponents in 2006, 2007, 2009 or 2010.
"A number of people on the board interpret this very politically as a threat to whatever control they are exerting on the college," Berry said. "And I don't think that is anyone's motive. I believe change is positive, and the election should be advertised more openly to allow more people to apply."
One current trustee who is not up for re-election, Mark Holston, said the candidates appear to be running in a calculated attempt to gain a majority and propagate an extremist political agenda.
"Their sudden interest smacks of political opportunism and begs the question: Will this community stand still for such a naked takeover attempt by candidates whose philosophies are so far out of the mainstream?" Holston said.
At the candidates' forum, the trustee asked Berry to defend a statement on his website, where he posited that "in 2013, the tea party Republicans will choose the committee memberships, and then the Tea Party will finally begin to achieve its freedom goals."
"One wonders what ‘freedom goals' Mr. Berry has in mind for FVCC when and if the tea party succeeds in taking over the board of trustees," Holston said. "Where was their interest just a month ago?"
Berry said the reason none of the challengers filed as candidates prior to the original March 25 deadline is because the open seats were poorly advertised, which has been a leading factor in the dearth of competition in recent elections.
FVCC President Jane Karas said seats come open on the board every year and are well publicized; the board follows Montana code by passing and publishing a resolution declaring the vacancies and setting the election date, Karas said, and the college also sends out news releases announcing the openings and the filing deadline.
A legal advertisement also ran in the local newspaper and a separate notice was published on the college website.
"In the 12 years that I have been here, there have been challengers who run against incumbents, and there have been times when incumbents have lost to challengers, just like any election," Karas said.
When the deadline was extended at Berry's request, he initially tried to run against incumbent trustee and board chair Bob Nystuen in the Flathead High School District. However, he was told by county elections officials that the filing was prohibited because Berry lived in the wrong district. Instead, he chose to run along with Horst and Wehe for the two seats available in the Columbia Falls, Big Fork and Whitefish School Districts, which are three-year terms, leaving Nystuen to run unopposed.
Critics wary of the candidates' political motives believe Berry was trying to orchestrate a majority takeover of the board and exert a fundamentalist influence on the school's policies.
At the recent candidates' forum, Baldwin said one of his foremost priorities would be to "implement policy decisions that would last for years to come," but that his decision to run was based on "a personal belief in true education."
"Their purpose seems to have been to run for a majority on the board of trustees, and when you run for a majority you have to have some sort of agenda in mind," said Bob Brown, former secretary of state for Montana and the Republican nominee for governor in 2004.
Brown said the FVCC has prospered under the leadership of its current board members, and he doesn't understand the need for a new tide of leaders.
"The community college is a real jewel here in our valley," said Brown, who lives in Whitefish. "It has prospered, it is well run, and there doesn't seem to be any need for the sort of disruptive change that these guys are proposing."
"I just don't believe it," said George Ostrom, a longtime Flathead Valley radio broadcaster and an original member of the FVCC Board of Trustees. "They say they don't have an agenda. I'm not buying it. I have a personal interest in this college. I helped start it, I have given it my heart and soul, and I don't like people messing with it."
Bill McClaren, who helped found FVCC in 1967 and served as the first dean of students, said he saw the importance of establishing a community college after realizing how badly the Flathead Valley needed one.
McClaren was working at Flathead Valley High School when he learned that only 7 percent of students went on to pursue some form of higher education, compared with 41 percent of high school students in Missoula.
"Students were not going on to higher education because of the expense of travel, so we began talking about the need for some higher education in the valley," he said.
In its earliest years, classes at FVCC were held at the high school, in downtown bars and church basements, "wherever there was space," he said.
"I never could have imagined how far it would come," McClaren said. "I see it as a total success."
McClaren also serves on the FVCC screening committee for funding, and said state, community and federal funding has been instrumental in providing students with the financial assistance they need to obtain an education.
"Last week, we had 290 applications for students who needed help next fall quarter," McClaren said. "It's just unbelievable the responsibilities some of these people have - single fathers with four kids who are going back to college to get vocational training while working two jobs."
The issue of federal funding was a major bone of contention at the candidates' forum Monday, with several challengers calling for a departure from too heavy a reliance on federal education dollars, such as Pell grants.
"I used federal funding when I was in college, so I am not opposed to it," Baldwin said. "But education is the responsibility of the state, and of local communities to provide incentives. Today, federal funding is pervasive, and it should not interrupt our self-preservation."
McClaren said 71 percent of students receive some sort of federal assistance, but that federal funding is interspersed with state and local support.
"So far we have never turned a student down for lack of funding," he said. "We have been able to find federal help, but also our foundation here gives a tremendous amount of money to students for assistance, so I think we already have tremendous backing from the community."
Incumbent Thomas Harding wondered where the current trustees had faltered, and asked the candidates to tell him specifically how they will improve FVCC.
"I want to ask the challengers where has the current board of trustees failed to deliver a successful college to the Flathead Valley? I think we have delivered on giving this community a fine community college in every regard," he said.
Lex Blood, a former mining geologist and professor a Flathead Valley Community College, compared the developments in the trustee election to the "anti-evolution crowd" who influenced classroom curriculum by getting elected to school boards.
"I think we are seeing a local manifestation of that," Blood said. "I just cannot conceive, particularly as vociferously as the climate change issue has been addressed, that this is just an altruistic attempt to help a community college out as it moves into another era of education."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at email@example.com.