Board approves principal selections for Flathead, Hedges

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John Blackman has been tapped as the new principal for Flathead High School and Brent Benkelman as the new principal at Hedges Elementary School. The Kalispell Public Schools Board of Trustees on Tuesday night voted unanimously on the selections.

Blackman, currently the assistant superintendent for the Blaine County School District in Idaho, will replace current Flathead High School Principal Peter Fusaro. Blackman began his education career as an art teacher in 1984 at Woods River Schools in Idaho and more recently served in principal and vice-principal positions with that district’s high school.

Set to replace Hedges Elementary Principal Natalie Miller, Benkelman previously served as a principal at Cherry Valley Elementary School in Polson and is currently the K-4 principal at West Valley School. He also previously worked as a kindergarten teacher at Elrod Elementary School.

The board also voted to approve Sara Cole as the new Special Education Director for the school district. Board vice-chair Lance Isaak, who along with trustee Mary Tepas was involved in selecting Cole for the position, noted that he was impressed by her knowledge of trauma-informed care and restorative justice.

“Those two things were a big part of my decision, and it seemed like that’s kind of the direction we’re going,” Isaak said.

Tepas added, “Just knowing the difference between behavioral and special needs, I think she’s going to be a really great fit for the district.”

The board also voted to enter into an agreement with the city of Kalispell and Flathead Community College to secure continued access to 12 tennis courts on the college’s Kalispell campus that were in part funded by the district. Under the contract, each party is required to contribute $2,000 annually to a maintenance fund for the courts, “to the extent possible.”

Trustees also were provided an update by district superintendent Mark Flatau on the controversy sparked two weeks ago, when Flathead High School refused to allow a student to wear a graduation cap that had been decorated with a Native American headdress and striped motif on its mortarboard during his graduation ceremony.

Flatau said that the bill passed this year by the 2017 Legislature specifically allowing Native American students to wear “traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance” during graduation ceremonies was “generally pretty vague.” He added that he has since spoken with the Montana School Board Association and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, requesting that they provide clear guidance for school districts to abide by the new law.

“This also provides an opportunity, from our perspective, for possible further engagement with our Native American community,” Flatau said. “I think that there’s no question in my mind that this issue has the eye of not just us, but of the state.”

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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