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UPDATED: Missoula school board meeting ends quickly after trustee refuses to wear mask

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Michael Gehl

Retired law enforcement officer Michael Gehl is sworn in as a high school trustee with Missoula County Public Schools in June 2021 representing the Hellgate Elementary district.

Missoula County Public Schools trustees met for fewer than four minutes at their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday night because trustee Mike Gehl refused to wear a mask in the boardroom.

Board chair Diane Lorenzen asked Gehl if he would wear a mask twice before closing the meeting.

“I would like the record to reflect that trustee Gehl has chosen not to wear a mask in spite of the fact that everyone else in the room was wearing a mask and that the district requires teachers and students to wear masks,” Lorenzen said at the start of the meeting. “Trustee Gehl, could I please ask you to wear a mask?”

“As I’ve stated before chairman, I’m not required to," Gehl replied. "If you could state a state code that I’m obligated to follow I would be more than happy to follow that, but I’m not bound by any state statute whatsoever.”

After Lorenzen’s second request, Gehl responded that he did not feel he needed to wear one because she was wearing her own mask.

Lorenzen later added that the board has received pushback from district teachers that board members don’t enforce policies they set.

The board approved a universal masking policy for the district in a 6-3 vote in August. The same policy was extended in October. Gehl voted against the policy both times.

The board-approved mask policy states that face coverings are required to be worn by all students, staff, volunteers or guests inside all MCPS facilities, including administrative offices.

Tuesday’s meeting was held in a hybrid format, with trustees and district staff meeting in a boardroom in an administrative office building, while the public was limited to virtual participation on Zoom or streaming online.

Throughout the first semester of the school year the trustees largely conducted their meetings in an entirely virtual format on Zoom. This was one of the few times they met in person in any capacity this school year.

“Trustee Gehl appeared in the press complaining that we didn’t have meetings in person. So here we sit in person with trustee Gehl refusing to wear a mask,” Lorenzen said at the meeting.

Lorenzen then opened up the floor for comment from the other board members.

Trustee Grace Decker said that Gehl’s refusal to wear a mask “sends a terrible message to our staff” and to the community as he was defying the board’s own policy. She likened his actions to bringing a beer into the boardroom.

“You’ve called the meeting to order, but we are not in order because we are not following the policies that we as a body have set,” Decker concluded.

Trustee Nancy Hobbins backed up Decker’s remarks and added that she did not feel comfortable participating in the board meeting with Gehl’s defiance of the policy amid this most recent surge of COVID cases.

“So I will leave this meeting if we can’t all follow the rules,” Hobbins said.

Rather than adjourning, Lorenzen opted to simply close the meeting until further notice. Another date had not yet been set by Wednesday morning.

“Apparently we will have to meet virtually until trustee Gehl is off the board,” Lorenzen said.

Gehl told the Missoulian he felt that Lorenzen orchestrated the situation, saying that the board had met in person a few times since the mask policy was approved.

“They’ve asked me to wear masks before and I’ve politely said, ‘No I’m not interested in doing that,’” Gehl said. “That’s the end of it.” 

He said what transpired at the meeting was in retaliation for his voicing his support in a letter for Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen following two letters from superintendents around the state who condemned her leadership of the Office of Public Instruction. 

When asked if he feels the district’s mask policy does not apply to him, he said that he’s not a paid staff member of the district and therefore the district has no jurisdiction over enforcing its rules on him or any other member of the public.

“I’m not bound to follow district policy,” Gehl said. “I’m a citizen and … Diane is not in my chain of command.”

Lorenzen told the Missoulian on Wednesday that her decision to suspend the meeting was to protect MCPS staff from unwanted contact with other people’s breath at all times.

“Maybe I don’t have the authority to remove a non-masked adult in the boardroom, but I do have the authority to release the MCPS staff and trustees from the obligation to remain in the room. So that’s what I did,” Lorenzen said, adding that she was exercising her “personal responsibility to reduce the spread of COVID.”

Elizabeth Kaleva, a local lawyer who represents the school district, said that House Bill 501 passed by the Legislature states that a person who refuses to wear a mask in a space requiring them cannot be cited for criminal trespass. 

However, it is incorrect for Gehl to insinuate that board policies do not apply to him, she said. School district trustees are expected to adopt policies and rules governing the school, she said.

“Even without the application of criminal laws, the district has the right to control the conduct of those individuals present on school property,” Kaleva said. “(Several district policies) incorporate these rights to control the conduct of visitors, which would include board members, on district properties.”

Gehl questioned whether his fellow trustees wear masks when grocery shopping or at other indoor activities, such as athletic events. One of Gehl’s children participates in winter athletics and he noted that very few people wear masks at those events.

“It’s hypocrisy at its best,” Gehl said.  

The board typically schedules two meetings a month to stay on top of the latest happenings with the district. 

"We hope we can continue to do that and I'll work with the board chair to figure out an effective way to run board meetings so we can continue because we have items that need to be addressed by the board," Superintendent Rob Watson said on Wednesday. "I'm hoping that by our second January meeting we'll have this figured out so that we can continue with the business of the school district."

The board's agenda for Tuesday night included approving personnel reports for the elementary and high school districts, as well as athletics and Montana High School Association proposals. 

Gehl intends to participate in future MCPS board meetings, regardless of how they are held, he said.

“If we go back to in person, I will be at the meetings there, and if we’re going to be in a virtual setting then that’s where I will participate in,” Gehl said.

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