Darby, Montana School Board

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Darby, Montana is a small, rural town on US Route 93, which follows the Bitterroot River in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. The town is in Ravelli County, Montana, of which Hamilton is the county seat. Darby is 60 miles southwest of Missoula, not far from the Idaho border. To th esouth is the 1.6 million acre Bitterroot National Forest.

Some 800 people live in Darby, and the Darby High School has about 180 students. In 2004, Darby became a focus of the national struggle in the US against religious incursions into public-school science classrooms.


Darby School Board Adopts Anti-Evolution Policy

In December 2003, there was a news story in the Ravalli Republic with this simple announcement[1]:

There's a town meeting scheduled in Darby Wednesday [10 December 2003] from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the junior high gym to discuss the merits of teaching the concept [of Intelligent Design creationism].

According to presenter Curtis Brickley -- variously described as "an intelligent design supporter"[2], a "local Baptist minister"[3], and a "Darby parent"[4] -- "The meeting is all about teaching origin science objectively." Intelligent Design creationism is principally advocated by the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank based in Seattle, WA[5]; Brickley's association with the Discovery Insitute is not known at this time.

The same news story also noted that

An attorney from the Montana School Boards Association advised Darby school officials that they shouldn't adopt curriculum that isn't in line with state standards.

The attorney's advice was not to be followed.

More than 200 people turned out for the presentation, which was described by a local reporter[6] two days later:

Brickley gave a two-hour, high-tech presentation on intelligent design, a biological origin theory that proposes that the intricate complexity of plants and animals is evidence that life could only be the work of an intelligent designer, not evolution. He's asked the Darby School Board to consider adding the ideas of intelligent design to its high school science curriculum, a step that would thrust Darby in the national spotlight of science education. [...] Darby School Board Chairwoman Gina Schallenberger said she liked what she heard at the presentation, and fellow trustee Doug Banks said he fully supports adopting intelligent design in the school's science curriculum.

Oddly, despite his presentation designed to arouse popular sentiment against evolution,[7]

Brickley doesn’t feel that the general public is prepared to properly debate the merits of intelligent design. “I try to avoid arguments because for 90 percent of the public, the dialogue is over their heads. I let the experts debate it and try to broker the information coming out of the intelligent design camp,” Brickley said.
Since Montana is a local control state, school boards have plenty of leeway in setting curriculum. In Darby, a simple majority of the five-person board has to vote for the policy change in two separate meetings for it to take effect, regardless of what the mainstream scientific community might think.
Since Brickley’s presentation, a group called Ravalli County Citizens for Science has also formed. The group is composed of parents concerned and outraged over the proposed policy change.

“This is a politically and religiously motivated action that seeks to place a religious agenda ahead of the interests of students. Students will be less prepared for college if this policy affects them,” parent and RCCS coordinator Rod Miner said.

At that time, the RCCS announced a public meeting for the following January 2004) to present their support for maintaining their school's science standards. Gina Schallenberger, the chair of the five-member board, agreed to table the policy change until after that meeting. Reportedly, the RCCS had also announced that it would consider sueing the school board, if necessary, to protect the science standards.

In an end-of-the year open letter[8] John Schneeberger, the coordinator for the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance, Brickley's presentation was described as "slick and convincing, but wholly disingenuous and misleading." In his letter he says:

This latest effort by creationists to promote their religious concept about human origins in high school science classes is the most sophisticated so far and is part of a nationwide campaign [....] The Darby School trustee and board chair Gina Shallenberger apparently will introduce a proposal to adopt an "Objective Origins" policy at the January 5 meeting. "Objective Origins" would change instruction on evolutionary theory in biology classes to discussions of the theory coupled with critiques provided by organizations such as the Discovery Institute.

The policy change was evidently introduced and tabled as promised, and the Darby Junior High gymnasium was again the meeting place, this time on Wednesday, 21 January, for a presentation by Allan Gishlick of the National Center for Science Education,[9] on behalf of the RCCS. As reported,

The policy calls for students to "assess evidence for and against theories," and "to analyze the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories, including the theory of evolution." Although the policy doesn't spell out what other theories would be included in science curriculum and courts have emphatically prohibited the teaching of creationism in public schools, the objective origins curriculum inevitably will include discussions of intelligent design....Darby is the first school district in Montana to take up such a decision, according to Montana School Board Association officials.

Days before 2 February 2004, when the Darby school board was to vote on the "Objective Origins" proposal put forward by Brickly, interest was high and the opinion of the town was divided:[10]

The "modest" proposal [of Brickley's] has Darby in a tizzy. The school board took public comment Monday night [26 January 2004] and will reconvene Wednesday at 7 p.m. Intelligent design has been castigated as the work of pseudo-scientists whose primary interest is putting God in the classroom, while evolution has drawn comparisons to "godless communism."

The middle ground isn't exactly heavily populated.
Part of the debate in Darby is about what exactly will be taught in science class if objective origins is approved. Curtis Brickley has his own ideas, and they do nothing to appease the policy's critics.
Science moves ahead through controversy, in fact, but that controversy is tangible, Christian said. [Don Christian is associate dean of the biological sciences division at the University of Montana.] "Scientific controversy involves scientific data and ideas, and how did the scientist measure something, and did they interpret the results correctly, and can it be duplicated," he said. "Intelligent design has not entered the realm of scientific debate."

It has, however, entered into the realm of public debate, one that continues Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Darby Junior High School gym.

On 2 February 2004 the school-board vote was taken, and the results were reported in local newspapers the next day by reporters following the story. Jenny Johnson[11] wrote in the Ravalli Republic:

Despite legal recommendations advising against the action, Darby School Board trustees Monday adopted an objective origins policy that will allow the school's science curriculum to teach theories other than evolution.

Trustees voted 3-2 to adopt the policy - Mary Lovejoy and Bob Wetzsteon opposed the policy, and Chairwoman Gina Schallenberger, Doug Banks and Elisabeth Bender voting for the policy change.

"This is not a good policy to adopt," Lovejoy said. "We need to go to the state before we consider this."

Wetzsteon, the other nay vote, said he didn't understand how the board can go against the recommendation of the school board's attorney.
Darby's policy doesn't specifically include language requiring intelligent design to be a part of science class, but instructs teachers to challenge the theory of evolution. Teachers are "encouraged to help students assess evidence for and against theories, to analyze the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories, including the theory of evolution."

On the same date, Michael Moore[12] wrote in The Missoulian:

Against the advice of the principals and teachers it employs and the attorney who represents it, the school board here voted 3-2 Monday night to approve an "objective origins" policy that will change the way science is taught.
[School-board member Doug] Banks said "objective origins" is just a way to teach both sides of the evolution "debate," but the board has no plan in place for such instruction, nor does it have plans for teacher training. Banks said the fact that the district has no curriculum in place is unimportant. Policy leads, he said, and curriculum will follow.
Elizabeth Kaleva, the board's attorney through her position as the attorney for the Montana School Boards Association [...] had also warned the board that it would likely be sued over such a policy by groups or individuals that believe that "objective origins" is a catch phrase for putting religion into science class.

Reaction from the capital was swift:[13]

"That isn't science," said [Montana State] Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch. "That's exactly what it's all about is teaching creationism. It doesn't matter what you call it. Creationism is not a recognized science."

She said Tuesday that the Darby School District runs the risk of violating the Montana Constitution and jeopardizing funding if it adopts a policy and curriculum that introduce creationism into science classes.

The same report noted that this vote by the school board was only the first reading, and that a second and final vote was needed to implement the policy change. Darby was still far from settled on the issue.

Darby Reacts to Anti-Evolution Policy

The talk was that the second vote on the policy would take place on 8 March, 2004, and the way the decision would go was the main topic of conversation in Darby.[14]

It’s core conversation in the teachers’ lunchroom. Girls’ basketball games have morphed into strategy sessions for parents and teachers. There’s even a curious New York Times reporter holed up in Bud & Shirley’s Motel.

Most important for the school is the rumor awash around the south end of the Bitterroot that as many as 30 families may want to yank their children from the Darby school system if the proposal passes. Aware of what could prove a financially (the school receives about $5,000 per student each year) and emotionally devastating blow to the system, school staff are wary of the school board bulling ahead with an “Intelligent Design” curriculum without understanding the ramifications of its actions.
“Some of our board members aren’t acting in the best interest of the school,” [junior high and high school science teacher Karen] Hedges said. “I think they’re acting out of religious conviction to do the right thing, and that’s a powerful motivator.”

Certain that it would be faced with a lawsuit, the Darby School Board planned a meeting for 23 February 2004 to face the matter[15]:

Lawyer Bridgette Erickson of Lincoln will talk to the board about the possibility of representing the school district should it be sued over its adoption of an objective origins policy[....] Erickson is affiliated with the Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz., which was founded to "keep the door open to the spread of the Gospel."

Upset over the direction the school board was headed, the students of Darby High School staged their own protest on 25 Febraury[16]:

Aaron Lebowitz, a senior at Darby High School, disagrees strongly with the Board's proposed new policy. He was instrumental in organizing a student demonstration against the policy that took place last Wednesday. Near the end of the school day close to 50 students left class early to protest the new policy by marching in front of the school, many carrying signs. Lebowitz said in a phone interview that he felt like the students' position on the issue was not being heard. Lebowitz said that he attended every public hearing over the new policy and when he saw people bringing young children in to say that evolution was being "shoved down our throats" he was offended.

"That really hurt because it is not true," said Lebowitz. "We don't need this policy to question scientific theories in class. We already do that."
<br Lebowitz said that he believed it was obvious from the testimony at the hearings that the new policy was aimed at putting religion into the science class.

March arrived and feelings were still unsettled and the future uncertain[17]:

The Darby School Board has made the national news over recent efforts to adopt a new policy governing the teaching of evolution in the school.

Having adopted the policy on first reading following at least three public meetings that brought out a polarized and passionate response from many citizens both in and outside the town, the Board has delayed holding the required second reading which is still not scheduled.

Rod Miner, co-chair of the Ravalli County Citizens for Science, and Martha Stomberg, his wife and fellow RCCS memeber, wrote an open letter to the Darby school board, published in the Ravalli Republic on 4 March 2004,[18] objecting to the "Objective Origins" policy. They conclude by saying:

You are trustees of the school district's money. If you pass this policy at second reading, you will choose to risk a great deal of the district's money on opposing lawyer's fees and the costs of litigation incurred by both the district and opposing parties. If you pass the policy on second reading you will abrogate your greatest responsibility, the care of our children's education.

Your uncritical acceptance of the claims of the Rev. Brickley and the Discovery Institute demonstrate to our children the polar opposite of what you are claiming as the intent of this policy, the practice of critical thinking. There is a tremendous amount of available evidence that shows that this policy is wrongly conceived and that the arguments that it substantially rests on are gross distortions and outright lies.

As school trustees, you can exhibit due diligence and obtain this information yourselves before you give this policy final approval, or you can waste hard-earned taxpayer money to have attorneys and judges bring this evidence to you in a court of law.

In a report about the letter:[19]

"I do not want to make a threat to the board," Miner said Tuesday of the two-page letter. "We want to say to the board, 'You're getting yourself into trouble. There are legal consequences to what you're doing. We can help you avoid this, if you will only let us.' "

By April, the situation was critical and Darby was even more clearly divided. The second vote on the policy was continually delayed while the school board continued to have meetings discussing the situration. Evidently, the threat of legal action -- and the likely costs to the town that would result -- was a powerful argument against a second "yea" vote.

On 7 April, protesters rallied at the Darby Fire Hall and carried their signs as they marched to the elementary school cafeteria, where the school board was meeting:[20]

"The major issue that people are really upset about is the school board's lack of interest in how they're affecting this community," said Kate Duggan, who founded Darby Taxpayers Against Court Costs and spearheaded the rally. "Hopefully, people are going to pay attention."
The Darby School District is on the verge of at least two lawsuits on two different fronts. A Darby couple has threatened to sue the district if it passes the second reading of the objective origins policy, and the Ravalli Republic is ready to take action against the board for closing meetings that it believes should have been open to the public.

Amid the controversy, many community members directly blame Chairwoman Gina Schallenberger, who closed the meetings as presiding officer and is among the three-person majority that voted for the objective origins policy.

While Schallenberger is up for re-election next month, Duggan's organization and one protest sign called for her to step down.
"Darby's a small community," Duggan said. "We've been giving the board the benefit of the doubt and unfortunately, we've been stepped on along the way."

The prevaricating school board now faced two possible lawsuits, and two of the school board seats were to be determined by an election the next month.

A Contentious School-Board Election

Not surprisingly, the "objective origins" policy was a major issue in the campaign for the shool-board seats in the election to be held on 4 May 2004. In the original field of candidates, 3 opposed to the "objective origins" policy, and 2 in favor of the policy, were running for 2 seats.

On 27 April, Bill LaCroix, one of the candidates opposed to the policy, withdrew from the race. In an open letter he explained:[21]

Before my withdrawal, there were five candidates vying for two open seats on the board. Two of those candidates are conservative ministers who have a history of trying to force a narrowly focused religious and social agenda on our kids through school boards.

Cary Monaco led the unsuccessful effort in Hamilton last year to ban the reading of "I know Why The Caged Bird Sings" by our high school students. Harris Himes offered to help the Darby School Board find a "free" lawyer when they passed their objective origins policy and found themselves facing the possibility of multiple lawsuits.

That left three candidates for voters who do not think that forcing "strong Bible tenets" (Mr. Monaco's words) on our kids with our tax dollars is a good idea. Each voter may cast two votes for the two open seats, which means that while the two ministers will not have to split the inevitable block vote of those who favor their divisive social agenda, the majority of voters who do not want to see the mess in Darby brought to Hamilton will have to split their two votes three ways. I wish to narrow that choice to two.

After participating in the League of Women Voters "Meet the Candidates" forum last Tuesday, I believe the central issues in this critical school board election are now crystal-clear to the community. At that forum, Rev. Himes evoked Hitler and Stalin to describe the hard-working and dedicated professionals who educate our children. Rev. Monaco threw in "extreme environmentalists" and "homosexual activists."

Clearly, the election issues were well resolved and the election seen as a referendum on the school-board policy to be settled by the 2,152 registered voters.[22] Those supporting a rational approach to science curricula won a resounding victory.[23]

Voters flocked to the polls Tuesday to cast decisive votes in both the Hamilton and Darby school board elections.
Preliminary counts showed incumbent Bob Wetzsteon and Erik Abrahamsen with a 42 percent lead over incumbent Gina Schallenberger and Robert House in the Darby school board race for two three-year terms.

Wins by Abrahamsen and Wetzsteon make a weighty change on the school board, shifting the tide against the controversial objective origins science policy. Both candidates don't support the policy that passed first reading but now teeters on extinction. Voters spoke out casting votes for the pair 2-to-1 over Schallenberger and House, who support the policy.

The co-chair of the RCCS expressed relief[24]

"I am delighted and it will be really nice to see a spirit of team playing return to the Darby school board," Rod Miner said. "We worked so hard to stop this thing short of a lawsuit. I am just very, very pleased."

At the same time, there was motion in the second lawsuit against the schoolboard[25]:

The board had also recently been fractured as it looked for a new superintendent to replace the outgoing Jack Eggensperger, who decided to quit in part because of the science policy. The board repeatedly closed meetings regarding the superintendent candidates and was sued by the Ravalli Republic newspaper for allegedly violating the state's open meeting law.

In that case, Ravalli County District Judge Jeff Langton recently slapped the board with a preliminary injunction prohibiting trustees from erasing minutes from those closed meetings. The Republic specifically identified Schallenberger in its suit, claiming she closed the meetings illegally.


On 7 July 2004, Jenny Johnson, who had been covering the story for the Ravalli Republic, was able to write:[26]

The objective origins science policy that churned in Darby for more than six months is extinct.

"Today the community is beaming with relief," said trustee Mary Lovejoy. School board trustees voted 3-2 Monday against the policy in second reading.

In early 2005, the Montana State Legislature briefly considered two opposing bills concerning the status of evolutionary biology in the science classroom, but both bills soon died without a vote.[27]

Thus, for the moment, the last word goes to Darby resident and parent Eli Hansen:[28]

"Science is taught carefully. Science is science."


  1. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Where did we come from?: Darby meeting to discuss teaching intelligent design", Ravalli Republic [MT], 9 December 2003.
  2. ^ Loc. cit.
  3. ^ James Glanz, "Montana Creationism Bid Evolves Into Unusual Fight", New York Times, 29 February 2004; reproduced in "Montana Creationism-Whole town gets involved in debate".
  4. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Intelligent design presentation draws hundreds", Ravalli Republic [MT], 12 December 2003.
  5. ^ "Discovery Institute, Wikipedia, date on article when accessed: 23 October 2005.
  6. ^ Johnson, 12 December 2003, op. cit.
  7. ^ Josh Mahan, "Changing Courses: Engineering Intelligent Design in Darby Schools", Missoula Independent, 23 December 2003.
  8. ^ John Schneeberger, "An open letter to the Darby School Board -- December 31, 2003", Ravalli Republic [MT], 5 January 2004.
  9. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Opponents of origin theories plan presentation", Ravalli Republic [MT], 20 January 2004.
  10. ^ Michael Moore, "Origins debate deeper than Darby", The Missoulian [MT], 28 January 2004; this is a fascinating analysis of the debate in the community at a dramatic climax prior to the school-board vote.
  11. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Darby adopts origins policy", Ravalli Republic [MT], 3 February 2004.
  12. ^ Michael Moore, "Darby schools OK 'objective origins'", The Missoulian [MT], 3 February 2004.
  13. ^ Associated press, "State education chief: Darby school policy not science", Billings [MT] Gazette, 3 February 2004.
  14. ^ Josh Mahan, "What would Jesus teach? Darby weighs the consequences of 'Intelligent Design'", Missoula Independent, c. 24 February 2004.
  15. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Darby School Board prepares for potential lawsuit; meeting set with lawyer: Tuesday's meeting is 7 p.m. at Darby Junior High School", Ravalli Republic [MT], 23 February 2004.
  16. ^ Michael Howell, "Darby in spotlight over 'origins' policy", The Bitterroot Star, XIX:32, 3 March 2004.
  17. ^ Loc. cit.
  18. ^ Rod Miner and Martha Stomberg, "Objective origins policy will be challenged", an open letter to the Darby School Board, published in the Ravalli Republic [MT], 4 March, 2004.
  19. ^ Michael Moore, "Darby couple readies 'objective origins' lawsuit", The Missoulian [MT], 3 March 2004.
  20. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Speaking out: Protesters voice concern at Darby School Board meeting", Ravalli Republic [MT], 7 April 2004.
  21. ^ Bill LaCroix, "School board candidate withdraws from race", Ravalli Republic [MT], 27 April 2004.
  22. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Darby divided?: Signs signal schism over school board election"}, Ravalli Republic [MT, 28 April 2004.
  23. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Tide turns on origins policy: Winners vow to change", Ravalli Republic [MT], 5 May 2004.
  24. ^ Associated press, "Darby rejects 2 candidates backing 'objective origins'", Billings [MT] Gazette, 6 May 2004.
  25. ^ Michael Moore, "Darby rejects 'objective origins' supporters", The Missoulian [MT], 5 May 2004.
  26. ^ Jenny Johnson, "Darby School Board puts objective origins to rest", Ravalli Republic [MT], 7 July 2004.
  27. ^ John Fitzgerald, "Review of science education could spur evolution debate", Billings [MT] Gazette, 22 June 2005.
  28. ^ Johnson, 7 July 2004, op. cit.

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