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Capitol Watch: Governor Greg Gianforte’s Connections to Petra Academy

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

In this ongoing series, Montana Press will continue to present a biographical profile of Montana’s new governor, exploring his history and following his leadership of state government. For the first two installments of the series, please see Part One and Part Two.

For the Petra Academy community in Bozeman, the Gianforte family has been an integral part of its 25 years of operation. With four children graduating from the school, millions of dollars in donations and scholarships and Greg Gianforte’s service on the school’s board, the family has played a significant part in the history of Montana’s longest-running private classical Christian school.

The sales of his New Jersey tech company, Brightwork Development, and his Montana company, RightNow Technologies, netted Gianforte approximately $135.7 million. One recipient of the Gianforte family’s wealth has been Petra Academy, a K-12 classical Christian school in Bozeman, one of few hundred classical Christian schools across the country, according to the Classical Christian website.

The Gianforte Family Foundation has donated millions to Petra Academy and also helped build the school’s newest building. The four Gianforte children—Richard, David, Adam and Rachel—all are Petra graduates.

Petra Academy was started in 1995 by Louise Turner and grew from a few dozen to around 180 students. Inspired by a conference in Idaho, Turner decided to open her own school that taught a classical Christian curriculum. In its history Petra has employed four headmasters: Louise Turner, Todd Hicks, Craig Dunham and Justice Kerr.

The Gianforte Impact on Petra

Petra held its classes in a private house during its early years before relocating to Genesis Business Park. According to a Billings Gazette article, Gianforte partnered with the construction company owned by Steve Daines’ family to build the park, also home at the time to RightNow Technologies. (Daines, a Republican, is a former RightNow executive who since 2015 has served as the junior U.S. Senator from Montana). Genesis Business Park sat next to Grace Bible Church, the Gianforte’s family church. Greg Gianforte also donated money to help build the church. In 2011, Petra students received a new school built on another plot of land in Bozeman owned by Gianforte. Expansions to the current school continued up to 2015.

Available tax records indicate Gianforte became vice-chairman of Petra Academy in 2004 and chairman in 2005. He held that role until resigning to campaign for the Montana governorship in 2016. The Gianforte Family Foundation donated over $13 million to Petra between 2006 to 2018 (the year of the most recent available tax record).

According to Craig Dunham, Petra Academy Headmaster from 2015 to 2019, he received a call from Gianforte about an interview for the position of Petra headmaster while taking his daughter to her driver’s license test.

“He was really the first person who I spoke to about Petra, about Bozeman, about Montana,’’ Dunham says. “And you know, Greg is a big advocate for Montana and he loves the state. He loves Bozeman. I get tired of the rhetoric that says he’s just an outsider pretending to be a Montanan and his family’s been here for decades.”

The Gianforte family moved to Montana in 1995 from New Jersey after selling Brightwork to McAfee for $10 million in 1994. According to Dunham, Gianforte supported Petra because of the school’s classical Christian approach to education.

Dunham says that despite his position as chairman of the board and his large donations to the school, Gianforte did not have extraordinary authority in decision-making at the school.

“Greg is an influential person, but he had no more influence in the process of things than any other board member,” Dunham says. “Even though he was the chair of the board, they were all equals.

Dunham also says the idea he as headmaster had unlimited access to Gianforte’s money is false. Gianforte was “fierce” on setting budgets, according to Dunham.

“People would think that I had a safe in my office and anytime I needed a couple $10,000, or something like that I would just reach in because Greg put that there,” Dunham says. “That wasn’t the case.”

Over the past twenty years, Petra’s curriculum and staff have fostered a quality of education commensurate with the way education “used to be,” Dunham says. By this the former headmaster means to say that young students are reading the “greatest works of Western civilization” in a way that doesn’t simply inform, but shapes, them as people.

“It’s not about just teaching subjects and books and concepts, it’s real human formation,” Dunham says. “And that used to be what American education was built on, that used to be the bedrock, our presidents, our first presidents… you know, that classical education.”

Part of classical Christian education includes teaching students about Christian moral formation with “Jesus as the ultimate example.”

“For us, we were just looking for students who were willing to work, and to embrace the challenge that our curriculum offered, and that families would be supportive of seeing that happen,” says Dunham

With open enrollment, Petra does not require a family to be Christian to enroll their child, Dunham says, nor is Petra one-denominational. The former headmaster says that 30 different churches are represented at the school, and that some families identify as agnostic and simply see the value of the education Petra has to offer.

“I always used to tell parents that we don’t, we don’t provide an education, we’re looking for students who want to earn an education, and that they are making it their own,” Dunham says.

While students have to be accepted into Petra, the idea that Petra is overly competitive in terms of admission isn’t true, Dunham says.

“I think it’s important [to know] that it wasn’t just the smartest students or the best students,” Dunham says. “These were by and large, a lot of average kids.”

The Student Academic Experience

The Petra community is tightly knit and produces fewer than a dozen graduates each year. Sadee Drunkenmiller started her education at Petra in middle school after being homeschooled for her early education. A 2014 graduate in a class of five, she and Rachel Gianforte filled two class seats.

Drunkenmiller enjoyed Petra because her teachers invested in her and other students. She says this was made possible through small class sizes, something she grew to miss in college. While she notes that the curriculum was challenging, Drunkenmiller believes that if students put in the work they could succeed at Petra.

She credits Petra with her ability to be a critical thinker. Even though at times at Petra Drunkenmiller felt confused or disagreed with questions or arguments, she says she now feels more grounded in the way she views herself and others because of the environment the school provided.

“I would say it [Petra’s curriculum] is oriented towards wanting to give you really rich material to work with and think about,” Drunkenmiller recalls.

Drunkenmiller understands that Petra is not for everyone. Her family had four students in Petra, and not all of them continued their education at the school. One of her sisters spoke English as her second language and struggled reading and analyzing philosophers’ texts.

“She’s just trying to comprehend basic English, you know; she can’t even get her pronouns straight,” Drunkenmiller said. “And so that was a language barrier.”

Hazel Laird says Petra was a place where she made many friends and participated in sports. She started at the school in first grade and says her teachers were always accommodating and that she grew very close to her graduating class of eight.

Laird appreciated the humanities portion of her education because it prepared her for college courses. Her father also sat on the board with Gianforte. She describes Gianforte as being passionate about Petra.

“He just helped bring about Petra; he wanted it to be the best that it could be,” Laird said. “And a lot of parents and teachers are very passionate about Petra and that education.”

Mark Bond, who graduated with Richard Gianforte in 2008, joined a four-person high school class. His family decided to move him from school in Ennis to Petra where his sister taught.

While Bond liked having access to classical literature and the deep discussions at Petra, he had mixed feelings about his high school experience. He describes his education as a “paradox” since he was taught to be a critical thinker, but became critical himself of what he learned at Petra.

“I mean, it was fascinating to learn all the fundamentals of critical thought,” Bond says. “And then at the same time, you’re thinking about the fact that you’re at a school where you’re being told the world is 2,000 years old. You’re being told that climate change isn’t real or you’re debating creation theory whether the world was created 6,000 years or 60 million years [ago].”

Sarah Smith (not her real name), who asked to remain anonymous, said that while students learned about evolution, they were taught it was merely a theory.

“And it always came to the conclusion that evolution was wrong,” Smith says of her instruction at Petra. “You know, creationism is the correct way to think about it.”

Smith went to Petra for the majority of her education and graduated with fewer than a dozen classmates. She says up until the sixth grade she enjoyed Petra, but she began to feel different than her classmates. This was hard since they were her only friends and she began to drift away from them.

“I was more of an independent thinker,” Smith says, “Which Petra says that they promote independent thinking, but it was more of an independent thinker in a ‘Christian’ way.”

With the curriculum centered around a classical education, Smith says she was able to read a lot of books. She enjoyed that but she didn’t get to read a lot of modern and post-modern literature. Smith also learned about European, Early American History and religious history but notes that she didn’t learn much about the Civil Rights Movement or Indigenous People until college.

“I didn’t know who Malcolm X was until I was in college,” she says. “I had never heard the name before.”

She wanted to leave Petra for public school after being drawn to the different electives at Bozeman High School and because many of her own interests were “taboo” or “alternative” and she didn’t feel like she fit in with her classmates. But she ended up graduating from Petra.

“There was a general sense of ‘We’re better than public schools,’” Smith says. “‘You as students are smarter; you’re more educated because of the curriculum that we have; you read better books than people in public schools.’”

She said that she and other students “took that to heart” since they were told throughout that their Petra education was superior. When she arrived at college, Smith made friends who had different perspectives.

“I realized that I’m not always going to be right,” she says. “My views are not always going to be right. I’m not better than anybody else for having the education I had [or] for having the views that I had.”

Learning Blocks and Petra

A 2015 Petra Academy admission application stated, “Petra Academy is not staffed to handle students with severe learning disabilities or those who have trouble behaviorally. For your child’s best interest, please be candid when you answer the following questions.” Questions on the application included the following:

Has your student ever been referred for testing or placed in a special program?”

Has your student received any other special help or tutoring?”

Has your student ever been diagnosed by a counselor/doctor/psychiatrist as having hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder?”

Has the student ever seen a counselor/doctor/psychiatrist for any type of social, behavioral, or mental problems?”

According to a 2017 HuffPost article, “In a tense exchange about the topic in February 2016, Gianforte told the Billings Gazette editorial board that the school, which is not subject to the law requiring public schools to accommodate students with special needs, does not admit students who need an extra staff person devoted to them.”

Regarding Petra’s policies for students with disabilities, former headmaster Craig Dunham says, “No one school can meet every need. And that’s why you would often see public school kids coming to Petra is because the public school couldn’t meet their needs of what they were, what their families wanted for them.”

Dunham adds that during his time at Petra the school would try to find solutions with families to help students who needed extra assistance. Whether due to lack of staff, resources, or money, however, Petra often lacked what it needed to help students with severe disabilities during Durham’s four years at the school.

Inclusivity at Petra

According to graduates like Druckenmiller and Smith, while Petra tried to accommodate students, providing a tutor or extra help for the student in need usually fell to the parents.

Smith believes this was due to the school’s lack of resources and the fact that teachers were unable to identify student disabilities, including mental health issues. According to Smith, unaddressed mental health issues were “rampant” throughout Petra during her time there.

“Telling students that, ‘You’re wrong for thinking something like this,’ and ‘It’s a sin,’” was disturbing for her, Smith says. “I would use the word religious trauma associated with the school. Lots of mental health issues just completely went unaddressed.”

Smith shared the story of class debate where the topic was gender identity. After the arguments were laid out by her classmates, including an argument that gender was a social construct, the teacher told students that women have a certain role displayed in the Bible.

“And it’s also an inherent thing. It’s a spiritual thing. It’s a godly thing,” she recalls of the instruction she received to follow the Bible.

Smith says that, as with many schools, girls often were blamed for the way they dressed and were treated.

“It’s your fault if a man looks at you and is distracted,” Smith recalls being told. “‘Don’t be a stumbling block for your brothers in Christ’ was a huge, often-repeated phrase.”

Smith recalls another class discussion over whether “practicing gay people” should go to Hell. In a Humanities class she participated in a two-hour discussion about whether Christians should bake a gay couple a cake, or if they should refuse to do so on the grounds of their beliefs.

Aware of peers who were part of the LGBTQ+ community in her school, Smith says having these conversations had a heavy impact on the school community.

“It’s devastating to think that something you can’t control is a sin and will send you to hell,” she explains.

Smith says she does not think parents were aware of these sorts of classroom discussioons, but she also believes many Petra parents may see sexual identity as a choice.

“I don’t necessarily want to place the blame on unaware parents because they just don’t know,” Smith says. “And their kids feel like they can’t talk to them about it because it’s so taboo.”

According to a former Petra parent who asked to remain anonymous, an issue that impacted the decision to pull their child out of Petra involved an incident where their child was bullied and assaulted by another student. They felt the school was not equipped to handle bullying issues.

The parent admitted to not being surprised that the school was unequipped to address such issues given that Gianforte, who sat on the school’s board at the time, also assaulted reporter Ben Jacobs.

“Other board members were open to communication, but the headmaster [not the current headmaster] accused me of being ‘unchristian’ for demanding action to protect my child and for rejecting the premise that the victim of violence has equal responsibility in repairing the relationship,” the parent said in a direct message to this reporter.

School Impact on Students and Families

Knowledge of Greg Gianforte’s significance and position at the school was not usually talked about among students at Petra. Looking back on their time at the school, however, some began to realize the influence he had on their education.

“I think he was pretty influential, just in the sense that he took it upon himself to read through the curriculum,” Sadee Drunkenmiller recalls. “And I think that that was just important, because that meant that he could kind of understand the vision behind it.”

Drunkenmiller remembers Gianforte spoke to her class once about the economy and marketing when they were reading “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith.

“But I always kind of thought of it as like, he was just a supporter,” Drunkenmiller says. “Petra was very much its own entity, and it’s still its own entity without him.”

Former student Sarah Smith met Gianforte, but never came to know him well. She did feel, though, like he and his family had an influence on the school.

“I know that Petra is often associated with Gianforte,” she says. Smith recalls Gianforte stepping down from the chair of the board once he started campaigning for governor.

Former student Mark Bond describes Gianforte as a “pillar” in the Bozeman community and “highly influential.” Bond and other members of his family attended Petra and, while Gianforte no longer serves on the board, Bond says, as far as he knows, Gianforte is still very much connected to the school.

“He still has strong relationships with many of the parents, students and alumni,” Bond says.

Hazel Laird shares that while her dad sat on the board with Gianforte, he was an employee at Gianforte’s RightNow Technologies.

“I think he did bring a lot of leadership and a lot of guidance to Petra,” Laird says. He had a vision of what he wanted it to be, and I think he helped bring that about to the large extent until he stepped down.”

Former headmaster Craig Dunham recalls Gianforte coming to the school to tell him that he was stepping down from his role as board chairman.

“I really didn’t want to hear that. I was hoping that he’d be able to continue or would want to continue,” Dunham says. Dunham, however, thinks Gianforte made a good call in stepping away from the school.

“It would have just been that much more of a headache, and it would have just gotten in the way of what we’re trying to do as a school,” Dunham says.

According to the parent who asked to remain anonymous, they were contacted by Gianforte and asked to support his political campaign. The parent did not agree with how “hostile” and “unloving” towards the LGBTQ+ community that Gianforte appeared to be, however, and declined to contribute.

“As Petra parents, we evaluated that the school under his authority did not align with our family’s belief systems and love toward marginalized communities,” they said in a direct message. They decided to remove their child from Petra.

The Gianforte Family Foundation has donated to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations, such as Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom. Greg Gianforte’s wife Susan also spoke out against an anti-discrimination ordinance that would protect LGBTQ+ community members from discrimation in their hometown of Bozeman.

Petra Connections

Connections between the Gianfortes and Petra have persisted during Greg Gianforte’s tenure as Montana’s lone U.S. House Representative (2017-2021) and, since January, as Montana’s Governor.

For instance, The Gianforte Family Foundation’s executive director, Catherine Koenen, and Petra’s academic dean, Sam Koenen, are married. Gianforte sat as chairman of the ACE (Alliance for Choice for Education) Montana Scholarship Board for the ACE Scholarships board that gives scholarships for students to attend private schools, and is currently listed as a Montana Board of Advisors on the ACE scholarship website.

Petra offers a number of yearly attendance scholarships for students, per the Petra website. According to tax records, the Gianforte Family Foundation donated over $7 million to ACE Scholarships between 2012 to 2018 (most recent record) and over $13 million to Petra Academy from 2006 to 2018. Gianforte also was listed as a trustee for Petra from 2013 to 2018 (most recent record.)

In a 2013 Helena Independent-Record article, Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, former Montana House of Representatives member, and school choice advocate, said, “He [Gianforte] was having trouble getting qualified, educated employees from Montana to work at RightNow, and asked if the Foundation [Montana Family Foundation] could work to make Montana more friendly to alternative school choices.”

Gianforte’s wife Susan has served as the chair of the board for the Montana Family Foundation. The Gianforte Family Foundation donated nearly $2 million to the Montana Family Foundation between 2005-2018 (most recent tax record.) Sarah Laszloffy, former Montana House of Representatives member, and daughter of Jeff Laszloffy, worked as the state director of ACE Scholarships before running for office, according to an article by the Missoula Independent.

Montana’s new Governor, Greg Gianforte, has devoted substantial amounts of his energy and money in Montana to teach young people to be classically educated Christians. Much of his effort has been directed toward a small private school in Bozeman, Petra Academy, an institution that considerably bears his stamp.

—MacKenzie Dexter

Over 200 people connected with Greg Gianforte now have been contacted in producing this series. Montana Press reached out to Richard, David, Adam and Rachel Gianforte for comment. Rachel declined an interview request while Gianforte’s other children did not respond. Petra Academy was contacted for comment multiple times and did not respond. Current Headmaster Justice Kerr and former Headmaster Todd Hicks also declined to comment for this story. Montana Press also has reached out to Governor Gianforte multiple times for comment on this series.

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