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Coalition sues education agency for ‘interfering’ with charter school openings

by ALEX SAKARIASSEN Montana Free Press
| March 30, 2024 12:00 AM

The Montana Quality Education Coalition filed a lawsuit Thursday against state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and the Office of Public Instruction related to an ongoing dispute over the agency’s implementation of a new public charter school law.

The complaint, filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court, alleges that Arntzen and OPI are “interfering in the opening and operation” of 19 public charter schools approved by the Board of Public Education in February. MQEC, which counts more than 100 public school districts and five statewide education associations among its members, claims the alleged interference delays recognition of those schools and results in “irreparable harm” to public school boards attempting to open them this fall.

Elizabeth Kaleva, an attorney with the Missoula-based Kaleva Law Office who is representing MQEC, described the lawsuit as an “unfortunate but necessary step” in gaining clarity on the process for opening the new charter schools.

“Timing is becoming an issue, and there were a ton of behind-the-scenes discussions trying to avoid litigation,” Kaleva told Montana Free Press in an interview Thursday. “I don’t believe anyone wants litigation here, but we’ve run out of options.” 

In a statement emailed to MTFP by OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary, Arntzen criticized the lawsuit as an attack on her “constitutional conservative” ideology.

“This is politically motivated from a bureaucratic group that is funded by taxpayer dollars with no accountability,” Arntzen said in the statement. “While this group wastes time and Montanan’s money suing my office, I will continue to focus on delivering results for our Montana students. I will not waste time participating in childish rhetoric. My office will continue to follow the law and use our precious taxpayer dollars to put Montana students and parents first.” 

MQEC’s complaint is the latest development in an ongoing disagreement between state education officials over the implementation of House Bill 549, which gives existing public school boards the ability to establish charter schools that fall under their jurisdiction. The law passed the 2023 Legislature with strong bipartisan support, and put the Board of Public Education in charge of approving the new public charters.

Earlier this month, however, OPI Chief Legal Counsel and Deputy Superintendent Rob Stutz informed a group of state lawmakers that the agency believes the public charter schools must also comply with a separate set of state laws governing the opening process for new schools. That process would ostensibly subject the new charters to supplemental approval by Arntzen, county superintendents and county commissions — a situation lawmakers and their attorneys insisted was not the Legislature’s intent. Arntzen herself was not present for the proceedings, prompting members of the education interim budget committee to send her a letter formally expressing their disappointment, which Arntzen immediately denounced as “political persecution.”

The Board of Public Education entered the fray this week with a letter of its own asking Arntzen to refrain from applying the supplemental approval requirements to the 19 charter schools it had already approved. Arntzen pushed back in a statement standing by her agency’s reading of state law and arguing, “we need to roll up our sleeves and focus on lawfully opening these schools, not getting caught in an endless loop of rhetoric.”

Thursday’s legal complaint from MQEC rehashed much of the recent back-and-forth, and elaborated further on other developments that have caused confusion and frustration for districts working to open their charters in time for the 2024-25 school year. The complaint referenced guidance documents published by OPI in February that allegedly laid out a four-month supplemental approval process, meaning districts would not know whether a charter was fully approved until months after school levies are voted on in May.

“Superintendent Arntzen’s and OPI’s defiance of the BPE’s constitutional and legislatively-delegated authority to approve public charter schools and to declare them open will, if not remedied, prevent qualified and approved public charter schools’ inclusion in general fund budgeting procedures beginning in a matter of days for fiscal year 2025,” the complaint reads.

MQEC is asking the court to bar OPI from applying additional school opening requirements to the public charter schools and to ensure the Board of Public Education’s authority under HB 549 “is not further abridged.” The complaint also asks the court to direct OPI to perform several administrative functions necessary to the opening of those schools, including the distribution of state funding.

Shortly before the complaint was filed Thursday, Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill spoke with MTFP by phone about the district’s read on the disagreement between state officials. Hill said OPI’s position on the matter “adds a whole new layer” to the process than MCPS had anticipated, and that his and other districts with approved charters are now in a “holding pattern” with a lot more groundwork to be done ahead of this fall. And, he added, similar disagreements over other education laws passed in 2023 — among them a bipartisan bill aimed at improving early childhood literacy — are causing added frustration.

“School districts are really feeling the impact of this impasse in terms of being able to create their programming and move the needle and get things going,” Hill said.

Alex Sakariassen is a reporter for the Montana Free Press, a Helena-based nonprofit newsroom, and can be reached at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.