Democrats Slam State Schools Chief as “Missing in Action”

Democrats are criticizing the state's superintendent of public instruction for failing to more forcefully advocate for schools and educational funding

By Justin Franz

HELENA — Montana legislative Democrats slammed the state’s new schools chief Friday, charging that she has been “missing in action” as lawmakers consider educational programs, including nearly $7 million in cuts to school funding.

During a meeting with reporters at the state Capitol, Democratic leaders assailed Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen for failing to more forcefully advocate for the schools she now oversees. They charged that Arntzen has declined to take positions on many of the bills before the legislature.

“To not be showing up and making sure those students have what they need, she’s not doing her job,” said Rep. Jenny Eck, the House minority leader. “This is not about politics. This is about policy. This is a forum where we decide policy for the next two years.”

Arntzen, a former legislator, began helming the Office of Public Instruction in January.

A spokesman for the superintendent rejected the assertions by Democratic leaders.

“She has been exactly where she needs to be — at the capitol advocating for responsible funding for our schools,” said Arntzen’s spokesman, Dylan Klapmeier. Arntzen, he said, registered her displeasure on proposed funding cuts to public schools.

While her office has not taken positions on many of the bills before the legislature, Arntzen has dispatched representatives to hearings to address questions.

Arntzen’s allies in the legislature say the superintendent has been mindful of the state’s budgetary challenges. Faced with a shortfall, lawmakers are looking to cut a vast array of services and programs. As a result, school funding could be cut by nearly $7 million.

“She clearly knows what the budget issues are. She clearly knows that we don’t have the money,” said Republican Rep. Nancy Ballance of Hamilton, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “What she’s doing is being true to her word that she wasn’t going to be a lobbyist.”

More than a dozen educational bills have come before lawmakers thus far, and Democrats say Arntzen’s office has offered little guidance on how the proposals could affect schools, students and educational programs.

“Her job is to tell us what the position of her department is,” said Rep. Tom Woods, a Democrat from Bozeman who is a member of the appropriations committee and the joint committee on education.

During an Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday, Woods continually pressed an Office of Public Instruction representative in attendance why his office was not supporting a bill on special education funding. The representative replied that Arntzen would not be taking a position on bills other than that authorizing inflationary funding increase to school budgets.

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