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In Sandpoint school board races, candidates resist ‘alt-right’ and ‘Redoubter’ labels

UPDATED: Thu., May 4, 2017, 12:44 p.m.

Candidates and current members of a North Idaho school board say they’re trying to block a slate of far-right ideologues from winning a majority in this month’s elections.

But those conservative candidates insist they aren’t members of the “alt-right” or the “Redoubt” movement that has taken root in Idaho and neighboring states.

The Lake Pend Oreille School District includes a dozen schools in Sandpoint and neighboring towns. Three of the district’s five trustees will finish terms this summer and are not seeking re-election.

The contentious races follow voters’ approval of a tax levy in March that generates nearly a third of the school district’s revenue. In the run-up to that vote, current trustees said, a group of “fringe” conservatives mounted a campaign to defeat the ballot measure, distributing mailers and writing numerous online comments and newspaper letters. A similar campaign recently targeted Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad.

Much of that was “fake news,” said Matt Mire, who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the school board last year.

“There’s definitely a contingency of folks who are ultra-conservative. I would say they’re far, far right,” said Mire, a registered Republican. “They’re a whole other faction right than I am. A lot of them are new to the community.”

Mire said he’s leaving the school board at the end of his term to focus on his family and his job in banking. Gary Suppiger and Richard Miller are campaigning to fill his place.

“There’s a tremendous amount at stake,” said Suppiger, who owns a fence building company. “Our opponents are trying to perpetuate the myth that our school district is failing and needs to be rebuilt. If any member of their ticket is elected, it could have a huge impact on our schools’ resources.”

Miller, who owns a woodworking company in Sagle, said he actually supported the two-year, $17 million levy that passed in March, although he questioned whether the school district needed more than the $15.7 million generated during the last two-year levy cycle. He said the levy was rejected by more than half of the voters in the zone he’s campaigning to represent.

“All we’re asking is to know specifically where the money is being spent. I think (voters) want a little more transparency,” he said. “I think people would support a whole lot of things if they got some straight-up answers.”

Redoubt debate

Steve Youngdahl has been a trustee for nearly 12 years and currently serves as the board’s chairman. He considered running for a fourth four-year term but eventually decided to step down and enjoy retirement.

Running for his seat are Cary Kelly, a retired military veteran who until recently served as a Bonner County commissioner, and Anita Perry, who retired after working in management positions at a college and two police departments in California.

Perry is affiliated with local Republican groups that critics said have been “infiltrated” by members of the “alt-right.” She also writes letters filled with campaign rhetoric for Redoubt News, a website aimed at conservatives who have migrated to the region in search of political refuge or to prepare for an apocalypse.

But that’s only because the website publishes her letters almost immediately, Perry said. She thinks various labels have been unfairly attached to her brand of conservatism.

“I’m not quite sure what they mean by ‘Redoubt movement.’ We all live in suburban neighborhoods,” she said. “That label is a mystery to me, and I’d like somebody to explain it to me.”

Perry and Victoria Zeischegg, who’s running for the third open seat, both said they oppose the $17 million levy but would have supported renewing the tax at $15.7 million over two years.

“I understand the state does not fully fund education and a supplemental levy is necessary,” Zeischegg, who’s also involved in Republican politics, wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of discord in our community right now, and I am running for trustee to help heal that division and bring our district together to create a bright and sustainable future for LPOSD.”

Suppiger said if the levy had failed, schools would have been forced to close and hundreds of teachers would have lost their jobs.

“As a voter, you don’t have a plan B,” he said. “You either support the levy or you don’t.”

Funding challenges

Youngdahl said Idaho lawmakers have long “fallen short” of their constitutional duty to fund public schools, and noted that more than 80 percent of the state’s school districts rely on local levies.

“Their workaround is they tell school districts, ‘We’re going to give you the right to ask for local levies to replace the funding we don’t give you,’” he said.

State funding has dwindled and the district has been eating away at reserve funds since the 2008 recession, Youngdahl said.

“We’ve gotten extremely creative in how we’ve tried to do more with less,” he said. “We no longer have the luxury to fall back on the fund balance.”

Youngdahl said the school district has made good use of taxpayer funds, noting that Sandpoint High School was recently ranked the second-best high school in Idaho by U.S. News and World Report.

“We made a pact with the community: If you support us, we will get better,” he said. “Both sides have held up their end of the deal.”

Youngdahl said he “pleaded” with all of the school board candidates and the Bonner County Republican Central Committee, of which Zeischegg and Perry are members, to meet and discuss the levy before it passed. He said his goal was to stop the campaign to defeat the ballot measure, or at least gather feedback directly from the group.

“I put the clarion call out,” he said, “and all I got back was crickets.”

Youngdahl, a self-described “Reagan Republican,” said some members of the Central Committee, who moved to the area from out of state in recent years, have also bombarded the district with public records requests.

“Since the moment they moved here, they’ve tried to foment adversarial and ugly relationships with the school board,” Youngdahl said. “And frankly, I think it damages the Republican brand to do what they’re doing.”

Mire said the group has been searching in vain for evidence of corruption among school board members.

“What’s frustrating is that they’ve pulled bits and pieces of information and spun them to tell a different story,” he said.

Kathy Rose, the secretary of the Central Committee, referred questions to the individual candidates.

Perry called for more transparency and said the school board hadn’t disclosed enough information about its budgeting process.

She said she attended meetings and presentations before the school board put the levy out to voters, and “it was clear that there were lots of questions unanswered. The discord in our community over the levy, I think, stems from a lack of communication.”

Although the levy eventually received an overwhelming 65 percent of the vote, “I’m encouraged to see the citizens more engaged in government processes,” she said. “That’s how the system works best.”

Ballots for the school board elections are due May 16.