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District superintendents critical of Arntzen's performance

by Keila Szpaller Daily Montanan
| December 7, 2021 3:00 PM

Asserting that Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s leadership is “creating serious deficiencies” and undermining public education as a central tenet of democracy — one recognized by the Montana Constitution — the top leaders of the state’s AA schools are demanding the head of the Office of Public Instruction restore the agency and start supporting schools instead of “throwing rocks at local school districts.”

“We write to express our disappointment in your leadership as our state’s chief public education officer,” said a Dec. 6 letter signed by eight superintendents across Montana overseeing 64,000 students. “Indeed, for the reasons described in this letter, we express no confidence in your performance as Montana’s chief public education officer.”

Re-elected in November 2020 with 52 percent of the vote, Arntzen of Billings took her oath of office in January at the state capitol. An announcement from her office at the time noted the former teacher was the first Republican re-elected for a second term as state superintendent of public instruction in 28 years.

Arntzen did not respond Tuesday to an email sent to her communications deputy requesting comment on the problems identified in the correspondence from the school superintendents.

In the letter, the superintendents said they were not concerned about Arntzen’s politics but about her “leadership (or lack thereof),” including her advocacy for an administrative rule that is “likely unconstitutional,” one that would allow parents to “opt out” of local school policies. The school officials maintained Arntzen is participating in events that vilify public educators, undermining locally elected trustees, and allowing OPI to “bleed to death” with a turnover rate of nearly 90 percent during her tenure and “absences in critical areas.”

“To provide examples, we note here some specific instances of the deficiencies at OPI under your management, which we believe transcend the political scrums of the day,” said the five-page letter, which noted the superintendents appreciate and do not blame other OPI staff.

The communication was submitted on Billings Public Schools letterhead and signed by the following superintendents, who noted they together oversee 45 percent of public school enrollment in Montana: Greg Upham, of Billings; Casey Bertram, interim superintendent, of Bozeman Public Schools; Rob Watson, of Missoula County Public Schools; Micah Hill, of Kalispell Public Schools; Godfrey Saunders, of the Belgrade School District; Thomas Moore, of Great Falls Public Schools; Jody Jonart, of Butte Public Schools; and Rex Weltz, of Helena Public Schools.

“With limited resources and ever more obligations under state and federal law, it is increasingly difficult to provide the constitutionally protected education our children deserve while your office is simultaneously failing to provide the critical assistance we need,” the letter said. “The bottom line is that for us to best do our jobs, we need you to be doing yours.”

The specific problems the letter discusses include poorly managed personnel shortages, harm caused to school districts applying for grant funds, a lack of coordination with higher education and industry leaders for workforce development, and lapses in keeping educational material and codes current and up to standards. The letter also identifies an odd notification sent to one school district that alleged federal compliance violations, but ones that didn’t end up having any basis.

“Additionally, your months-long campaign against our districts’ efforts to combat COVID-19 in our schools and communities has undermined the role and responsibilities of our locally elected officials and disrespects the honorable volunteer efforts of hundreds of trustees in our Montana communities,” the letter said.

It outlined specific problems including the following:

• A fall report counted more unlicensed teachers than is typical during a time the state is facing “a critical shortage of licensed educators,” the letter said, and a related backlog of applications at OPI can mean educators aren’t paid on time for their work. “If teachers are not being paid, they may consider looking to other states with better functioning licensure programs, further exacerbating Montana’s educator shortage.”

• The letter said there appears to be no plan to update content standards, which creates problems for students and districts: “In addition to the disservice it does our students when we are forced to teach to outdated standards, districts also regularly plan curriculum review cycles years in advance to plan for the enormous budget expenditures that follow updating to new standards, so the lack of leadership from OPI on this is also causing districts financial uncertainty we can ill afford in these increasingly uncertain times.”

• Current staff are helpful, but the lack of a special education director at OPI means technical support is difficult to obtain, and high turnover means the loss of longstanding connections between districts and the state, the letter said: “Special education is one of those high-risk areas where districts, especially districts without dedicated compliance staff, can get into trouble in a hurry if they cannot rely on technical assistance from the state education agency.”

• The letter said the head of OPI provided “misinformation” at a public meeting in response to a review of ethics code by a body of professionals: “As the Superintendent of Public Instruction, your actions and statements should support the professional educators in Montana. In this instance, you instead used the influence of your office to speak against the efforts of public educators chosen to review and revise the Code of Ethics that guide our profession.”

• The letter also said OPI had compromised school districts’ abilities to seek grant money: “Numerous issues at OPI have resulted in districts being unable to timely apply for or access funds they need to do their work.” The letter said the problems include inaccurate formulas and lack of stable staffing to provide technical assistance.

Other issues include a lack of support for and rushed process jeopardizing a review of rules and procedures regarding educator licensure, the letter said. It described the staffing level at OPI for accreditation as “frankly absurd,” with just one recent hire joining just one other person. A lengthy paragraph also described OPI’s bungled attempt to alert one district it was being flagged as “high risk” due to allegations it was out of compliance with three federal programs — and subsequent notification OPI was dropping its “high risk” determination: “It does not appear there was any basis for the designation in the first place.”

Arntzen has attended events in the state in support of parents who oppose mask mandates, and she spoke at a meeting in Missoula where a school board member and parent advocated parents take their students out of public schools. At the meeting, the school board member asked a lawyer what to do with superintendents, and the lawyer said, with a smile, “shoot ’em?” Arntzen was not in the room at the time and later condemned the remark, and the lawyer later apologized for his comment, but the letter from superintendents said the situation was not isolated for Arntzen.

“Like you, we have educated hundreds of children,” the letter said. “Some days were hard, but most were calm and productive, and we ended the day feeling like we made a difference. To have someone at a political rally you attended ‘joke’ that we should be shot because of the professional roles we play shook and outraged us. We realize you attempted to distance yourself from those comments, but this was not the first time you participated in an event that vilified public educators.”

The letter said the local superintendents expect better of Arntzen in guiding OPI and managing its resources for the betterment of all Montana’s public schools: “We hope our concerns do not fall on deaf ears, Superintendent Arntzen.”

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education.

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