WATCH: Missoula Schools Trustee Declines Mask, Chair Suspends Meeting for “Spreading Germs”

On Tuesday night, the regular meeting of the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Board of Trustees was suspended by board chair Diane Lorenzen after trustee Mike Gehl declined to wear a mask. An agenda item that was set for discussion was Montana High School Association sports eligibility issues, which the chair mentioned was “popular with the public.”

Currently, the public is still barred from attending in-person meetings of the school board.

Board chair Lorenzen argued that because students and school staff have to wear masks, due to the policies of the school board, everyone should comply.

“I would like the record to reflect that Trustee Gehl has chosen not to wear a mask,” Lorenzen said.  “In spite the fact that everyone else in the room is wearing a mask and that the district requires teachers and students to wear masks.”

“Trustee Gehl could I please ask you to wear a mask,” she insisted.

Missoula School Board Trustee Mike Gehl declines mask at MCPS Board of Trustees meeting. January 11, 2022.

Trustee Mike Gehl politely responded that he was not required to wear a mask and that there is no state statute that compelled him to to wear a mask, either.

“As I have stated before chairman,” Gehl said. “I am not required to. If you could state a state code that I am obligated to follow, I would be more than happy to follow that. But I am not bound by any state stature whatsoever.”

MCPS Board Trustee Diane Lorenzen

Chair Lorenzen said that Gehl was “spreading germs” by declining to mask his face.

“No, but you’re bound by common courtesy and personal hygiene to keep yourself to yourself,” the chair said. “So, may I ask you again, please, just for the sake of not spreading germs around the room could you please wear a mask.”

“You’re wearing yours, I don’t feel I need to wear mine,” Gehl responded.

“Let the record reflect that trustee Gehl has refused to wear a mask,” Lorenzen stated. The chair asked other board members for comments.

School board Trustee Grace Decker said that declining to wear a mask was akin to someone deciding to “bring a beer in here.”

MCPS Board Trustee Grace Decker

“I feel it sends a terrible message to our staff and to the rest of our community that one of our trustees is not following a policy that our board as a body adopted,” Trustee Decker stated. “It’s the same as if a person decided to bring a beer in here. That’s against our policies and we wouldn’t stand for it.”

“I feel that we are out of order, currently. 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 bristled.

“I don’t feel comfortable,” another trustee, Nancy Hobbins said. “I will leave this meeting if we can’t all follow the rules.”

Before adjourning the meeting without a vote of the body, Lorenzen said that it was apparent that they would not meet in person again until Gehl was “off the board.”

“We’re going to cancel the meeting, and adjourn till further, not adjourn the meeting, but simply close the meeting till further notice,” the chair said. “Apparently, we will have to meet virtually until trustee Gehl is off the board.”

In a statement to Missoula County Tyranny, Gehl noted that he has attended in-person meetings of the school board without a mask in the past without dramatics and that his recent letter of confidence in support of Montana State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen was the difference Tuesday night.

MCPS Board Trustee Mike Gehl

“We have had 2 or 3 in-person board meetings since the school adopted its mask policy,” Gehl said. “The rest have all been virtual. I have never worn a mask at any meeting.  Consistently.  Never.”

“What changed?” Gehl said. “I publicly came out and supported our State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen against MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson’s poison pen letter.”

Gehl said the mask policy regrettably adopted by the school board does not apply to members of the school board.

“The facts are clear here—I have diligently explained to them on several occasions, they only have authority over their employees and students.  No one else.”

Gehl said that he believed the theatrics were coordinated. The school board student caucus was missing on an important night discussing student athletics and chair Diane Lorenzen approached Gehl before the meeting and asked him if he was going to wear a mask. Gehl responded he would not be wearing a mask, again, and according to Gehl, Lorenzen stated that the board was going to “vote to censor you.”

“This is not about masking, it’s about control,” Gehl said. “They want it, they definitely do not want you to have any.  If I do nothing else, I am going to continue to point out their hypocrisy.  I do not work for them, I am not accountable to them, I do not answer to them.  And there is nothing they can do about that.”

What do you think?