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Kalispell Public Schools asks county to handle future election

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | May 13, 2022 12:00 AM

Flathead County’s largest school district — Kalispell Public Schools — is formally requesting the county handle its election in 2023.

In Montana, school district clerks are designated as election administrators who oversee the election process. However, Montana Code Annotated 20-20-417 lets school boards issue a resolution asking the county election administrator to take the reins.

“This resolution is actually being brought before pretty much all the trustees of all the school districts in the area,” Denise Williams, Kalispell Public Schools clerk and business director told school board trustees Tuesday. “It’s been an ongoing wish that the school districts in Flathead County would have the county election administrator conduct the school election. The main reasons are that that’s what they do; they are the county election office and they have individuals there where they specialize in elections.”

The resolution specifies holding a mail-ballot election. Access to county equipment would automate the process.

“I did a poll of other AA school districts in the state and Missoula County has run the elections for their school districts for over 20 years now,” Williams said. “Yellowstone County has done it for at least 10 years, if not longer.”

There are about 40,674 registered voters within the school district, which represents 60.9% of Flathead County registered voters at 66,775, according to the district.

After canvassing results from the May election Tuesday, the Kalispell school board of trustees approved the resolution, which makes a case that:

“… the school election administrator [district clerk] does not have access to the voter registration database containing the details necessary to effectively administer an election including demographic information and validation information including the elector’s signature. The school district does not maintain the necessary equipment including ballot counting machines, voter interface devices and adequate number of ballot boxes. The school election administrator is not equipped to train election judges. The Flathead County voters inherently perceive bias when a school district employee administers an election that could impact the district budget and employee compensation.”

In the resolution, the district asks the Flathead County election administrator to specifically: complete and file the mail ballot plan with the Secretary of State; appoint and train election judges; print ballots, prepare and mail ballots; scan, track and verify signatures for returned ballots; and count ballots and tally the results of the election.

The district would retain the responsibilities of accepting and verifying trustee candidate applications and certifying ballots. The school board would continue to vote on resolutions calling for an election and notifying the public.

Board meeting attendee Llyod Bondy voiced his support for the measure during public comment. Bondy was elected as the next high school district trustee representing Kila and Somers-Lakeside. He said he believed with the amount of voters in the county, which continues to see growth, “...it’s becoming too much for a school district to handle.”

THE COLUMBIA Falls School District board of trustees approved a similar resolution on Monday, according to Dustin Zuffelato, district clerk and business manager, who said he’s made informal requests for the county’s assistance going back 15 years.

“I think we’re making a concerted effort this year,” Zuffelato said. “It’s an issue we all want to resolve and we’re doing what we’re lawfully required to do by making a request before June 1.”

Problems both districts ran into with getting ballots to voters this year prompted the requests. In Kalispell, some voters either received too few or too many ballots. Officials tried to rectify the situation by contacting affected voters, mailing 1,700 letters to people advising them of the error letters and attempting to call affected voters individually.

Williams said the initial response was to mail missing ballots when people contacted the district, but as election day approached, officials changed course, asking voters to come to the central office to pick up ballots.

Kalispell voters Sharon Peetz said she and her husband didn’t receive one of two trustee ballots they should have received.

“Our vote was taken away,” she said.

She said she contacted the school district expecting a ballot to be mailed, but it wasn’t.

“Our leaders need to take responsibility,” she said, especially at a time when people are losing trust in the election process. “If people can’t do a job. Don’t do it.”

In Columbia Falls, a third-party printing and bulk mailing service made an error when it didn't mail out a box of ballots, which delayed the distribution of 1,074 ballots. Columbia Falls School District has about 9,650 registered voters.

If the county approves the resolutions, school districts would assume all the costs of running a school election.

“Really, it’s not about the money. It’s just more maintaining the integrity of the election and ensuring we have processes in place to preserve that,” Zuffelato said.

For Kalispell, Williams estimated the cost of printing ballots and hiring 12 judges as upwards of $50,000.

“Missoula said they pay upwards of $70,000 to run their elections. Bozeman’s around $50,000. Billings said they pay around $70,000,” she said.

For both local school districts, mail elections are labor-intensive.

“It’s a completely manual process for us,” Williams said.

In an attempt to automate the process this year she said the school used machines it purchased to open envelopes, yet counting continued into early Wednesday.

“It takes a lot of time away from those of us at the school district running the election. It takes away from everything else we’re trying to do, especially in the business office of a large district — we’re there to facilitate the operations of the district. We spent a lot of time and energy conducting this election,” Williams said. “I am very grateful for existing staff who have been through this cycle before. This is my first year with this district running this election. It was very overwhelming at times.”

Kalispell Public Schools board chairwoman Sue Corrigan agreed.

“We are educators not election officials,” Corrigan said.

Mail-ballot elections have become the method of holding school elections for many districts. Although mail ballot elections are time consuming, it makes sense for districts such Kalispell and Columbia Falls. One reason for this, Zuffelato said, is the growing group of voters opting to receive absentee ballots.

“There’s 65% if not 75% permanent absentee voters within Columbia Falls School District. We have to send out so many ballots anyway we determined it’s easier to send them out 100%,” he said. “Five or six years ago permanent absentee voters was less than 20% in my experience. I believe that’s similar to the state, if not countywide.”

Voter turnout has also increased through mail-ballot elections, Zuffelato said, as opposed to in-person voting at the polls.

“When we did both absentee and open polls maybe several hundred showed up,” he said.

“It has increased participation, but it’s burdensome to deal with voter verification and envelope stuff. We are not equipped to handle 10,000 registered voters.

“They have the capacity to deal with this,” he said.

THE FLATHEAD County Election Department has denied past requests from school districts, which have been informal.

“We have recently received requests, but most schools in the past still wanted to keep their elections the same as in the past and didn’t request to change,” said Monica Eisenzimer, Election Office Manager with the Flathead County Clerk and Recorder office.

For requests that have been received, she said the department thas been hesitant to take them on if it wasn’t possible to conduct elections for all schools making the request. Within Flathead County there are 19 elementary districts and four high school districts. It would be rare for every district to hold an election in a given year. School elections also have different laws and timelines.

While districts have until June 1 to submit resolutions to the county election administrator, the county election administrator does not have a specific deadline to respond to schools.

“It’s up to the Election Department to accept the request and the decision is a team decision [made] along with the commissioners,” Eisenzimer said, noting that funding for staffing costs would need commissioner approval, for example.

“At this time funding has not been completely estimated as there are now new requirements for schools that will have to be considered,” she said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.