Darby school board
Darby School Board puts objective origins to rest
By JENNY JOHNSON Staff Reporter, Ravalli Republic, July 7, 2004 - original
DARBY - 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. The vote kills the policy that called for teachers to question the theory of evolution, analyzing its strengths and weaknesses. Passing the second reading would have made Darby the first school district in Montana to have such a policy, for which a curriculum would follow.

The former board approved the policy, also on a 3-2 vote, in early February. But passing a second reading is required before the policy could be adopted.

Critics of objective origins say it's a way to insert religion in the classroom and argue the current curriculum and textbooks treat evolution as a theory, allowing students to assess the theory alongside their own paradigms.

A majority of the current board was concerned that the policy wasn't approved by the Montana Office of Public Instruction and was the focus of threatened lawsuits over its constitutionality.

The issue sharply divided the community and drew more than 50 percent of registered voters to the polls in May. Campaigns for two seats on the school board centered on the policy, and voters changed the make up of the board, effectively killing the policy before fruition.

"I asked to have this put on the agenda," said board Chairman Bob Wetzsteon. "I think it's clear where the board stands, and I wanted to get this put away."

The agenda item drew criticism from proponents of the policy who said the board had agreed to have the second reading in August.

Darby resident Joe McCrossin said putting the item on the agenda Monday - a specially scheduled monthly meeting that fell on a national holiday - was sneaky and underhanded.

"I have not had time to prepare," said trustee Doug Banks, who twice voted for the policy. "My concerns have been neglected. The actual process is as important as the actual vote."

Banks said there was new information about the policy available since the first reading. Voting on the policy before that information was part of the record "circumvented the process," he said.

"There is a large volume of new material available since the first reading," said Jack Frank, a Hamilton resident who heads Montana Advocates for True Science. "I think you should table it to let me prepare to comment."

Trustees considered tabling the issue until August, but voted 3-2 to vote on the policy Monday. Banks and Elisabeth Bender voted to table the issue, and Lovejoy, Erik Abrahamsen and Wetzsteon pushed forward with the vote and finished off the policy.

"People certainly have spoken their mind before the first reading," Wetzsteon said. "I really feel it's important to move forward - it's important for the district."

Hundreds of people chimed in on the issue during nine hours of public comment in three public meetings last winter. The issue evolved from the Darby school board room to a national arena as media from all over the country started paying attention to Darby, which educates about 400 students.

The policy doesn't specifically include language requiring any sort of religion to be 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."

"All this is just good science - looking critically at evolution," Banks said. "Why are we afraid of going there?"

Banks also cited language in the national No Child Left Behind Act, developed by education officials in Ohio that support the proposed policy, that requires critical analysis of evolution and curriculum.

"Darby has the opportunity to be the first," Frank said. "It's inevitable."

Others questioned the personal beliefs of trustees and the facts that led to the decision not to approve the policy, including whether trustees believed the issue was under the jurisdiction of "local control."

"I don't understand what you're afraid of," said Gina Schallenberger, who chaired the board during the bulk of the policy's controversy.

While most policy opponents deny the policy is religiously motivated, it was initially proposed by the Rev. Curtis Brickley as a push to teach intelligent design - a biological origins theory that assumes there is a designer of the biological world but stops short of saying who or what that designer is.

"I can't get over it's first introduction as ID," Lovejoy said.

Besides a potential lawsuit over the policy, opponents said the issue should be brought up at the state level.

"I'm a Republican and a Christian who doesn't believe in evolution," Darby parent Jennifer Ray said. "And my children learn evolution and still carry their beliefs with them."

Ray said Darby teachers already allow discussion about alternative beliefs in the classroom.

"If it ain't broke...," Darby parent Eli Hansen said. "Science is taught carefully. Science is science."

Reporter Jenny Johnson can be reached at 363-3300 or jjohnson@ravallirepublic.com