Photo by Chad Harder
Some prominent Missoula voters have raised questions over Chris Jones’ aptitude for Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees, based on his history as a conservative activist
“It was fun,” he says. “I’m actually the soldier that beats Jesus, so it has its moments.”
In short, Jones seems to be just another concerned parent trying to get involved. Not the sort you’d immediately picture publicly advocating censorship or opposing gay rights. But Jones’ history of conservative activism has some campaign opponents and prominent Missoulians concerned about his aptitude for the school board.
Public school elections are notorious for low voter turnout, and those who pay close attention know the phrase “swing vote” is all too serious. Only 19.31 percent of Missoula voters participated in the 2008 election. Even that turnout was higher than average, says district Public Relations Officer Lesli Brassfield.
Red flags regarding the upcoming May 5 election went up when Ward 1 Councilmember Jason Wiener did a Google search of candidate names. Strictly a move by a cautious voter, the search brought up a list of local articles and minutes from legislative hearings revealing Jones’ past crusades. Wiener passed the information to friends, including local activists Don and Pat Simmons. Jones’ critics say their concerns are in no way personal, but stem exclusively from the candidate’s reputation in the public sphere.
“It’s like they say in the Bible, in fact,” Wiener says. “‘You should know them by their fruit.’”
And Jones’ fruit comes by the basketful. He’s served as director of the Coalition for Community Responsibility alongside friend and current executive director Tei Nash. In 2003, the two filed a lawsuit against Missoula County contending commissioners failed to properly inform the public of a motion to extend county employee insurance coverage to domestic partners, same-sex or otherwise. Jones and Nash again graced local media in 2004, when they met at C.S. Porter Middle School during November elections to gather signatures supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
“I just couldn’t disagree more strongly with their agenda, which I find it hard to believe they’ll be able to leave behind given their long history of activism,” Wiener says. “It’s not that they’re not entitled to those views, but I certainly don’t think they should be guiding the actions of our school system.”
Jones’ name is linked to numerous public school issues as well. He and Nash appeared before the school board in 2004 requesting Wayne Seitz, the advisor of Hellgate High School’s student newspaper, be removed from his post over sexual references in a student column. During the meeting, they also argued against an emphasis on homosexuality at high school Diversity Week activities.
“The big issue that got us started with Diversity Week wasn’t the fact necessarily of what was being taught, it was the fact that the kids couldn’t opt out of the program,” Jones says. “So if they didn’t want to go to a panel that had a gay man, a bisexual man and a straight man, they couldn’t opt out of that panel. They had to go and listen. That didn’t sit too well with me.”
Like Wiener, incumbent trustee Nancy Pickhardt has nothing personal against Jones. She’s running as a three-year trustee and mother of two at Hellgate, and says Jones’ reputation indicates he might not be able to sideline his personal agenda while acting on a non-partisan board.
“To me, if you’re a person who is out there trying to actively squelch and who is prejudiced against students who are homosexual, you’re not a strong person to leave that behind,” Pickhardt says.
Few of Jones’ critics, including Wiener, have met Jones in person. Joe Knapp, who was appointed to the school board in early March and is also running in the upcoming election, declines comment on Jones. But Knapp recognizes the importance of approaching school board actions with an open mind.
“I think we need to leave our personal agendas at the door when we’re sitting around that table talking about the future of our district,” Knapp says.
Jones says he is simply running for the same reasons as his opposition. Over coffee at Zootown Brew, he explains he’s felt like an ancillary supporter in the schools since his daughters entered Sentinel. While working a Sentinel coffee stand on Thursdays this year, Jones grew closer to students and teachers.
“Me being on the school board is because I’m a concerned parent and I want the best education for the children in our district,” Jones says. “I think that the students in Missoula County should be receiving the best education in the country and I don’t believe they are.”
As for past contentions with gay rights and their bearing on his campaign, Jones has little to say.
“Do you think that really is related to the school board thing?” he asks.
Some argue yes. Pickhardt says that while current school board members hold varying political viewpoints—“based on upbringing, on background, on religion”—they exhibit a stronger tendency toward open-mindedness.
Ultimately judgment lies with voters. Wiener, who doesn’t want the tenor of a campaign to discourage future candidates from running, has made up his mind.
“What you do when you ask for people’s permission to be their trustee is to place some stock in your values,” Wiener says. “So it’s important to know what those are.”