Like I Was Saying

A Public Education Crisis

It appears Arntzen cares very little about the institution she was elected to lead

By Kellyn Brown

In an unprecedented show of unity, every AA school district superintendent in Montana signed a letter expressing “no confidence” in the head of the Office of Public Instruction (OPI). While Elsie Arntzen often makes headlines (she has joined protests against mask mandates and grandstanded about Critical Race Theory, which isn’t taught here), the recent allegations made against her are at once serious and sweeping. Basically, our top educators are warning residents that the foundation of our school system, a point of pride in the state, is beginning to crumble.  

The superintendents, which include Kalispell Public Schools’ Micah Hill, stress in the five-page letter that “their concerns aren’t related to politics.” Although they do mention their outrage that Arntzen participated in a rally where another attendee “joked” that superintendents should be shot. 

But beyond her loaded rhetoric is perhaps something far worse: It appears Arntzen cares very little about the institution she was elected to lead, the consequences of which could be long lasting for public education in Montana. 

These eight superintendents, who collectively are responsible for the education of 64,000 students, or about 45% of the state’s public schools enrollment, say Arntzen’s agency has experienced a turnover rate of nearly 90%. In the private sector, this would be reason to sound the alarm, but apparently not at OPI. Instead, positions have been vacated and unfilled in an effort to cut the “fat out of government.”

This is what that looks like, according to the superintendents: 

There is a backlog of teacher license applications and not enough people to process them. This means unlicensed educators waiting for their license may not get paid, which also means a state already “facing a critical shortage of licensed educators” could have an even harder time recruiting. 

The Office of Public Instruction has not updated the state’s content standards, which means students may be learning with outdated curriculum. 

There is no special education director at OPI and the “general communication regarding special education updates from OPI … has been lacking.”

Updates to the Montana Educators Professional Code of Ethics, which is to be reviewed and revised every five years by a group established in state law, have been delayed. Arntzen says the revisions are somehow connected to “Critical Race Theory.” The superintendents say she is once again spreading “misinformation.”

Because of “numerous issues,” including “lack of stable staffing” at OPI, school districts have been “unable to timely apply for or access funds they need to do their work.” 

And finally, the superintendents stressed their school districts’ need for annual accreditation reports, a “critically understaffed area of OPI” that must be remedied so “educators, trustees, students, and parents can have confidence in our schools’ abilities to teach our kids.”

Flathead County taxpayers have passed multiple bonds supporting education in recent years. We’ve built several new schools and provided teachers the tools they need to elevate the next generation of students. Let’s hope it’s not all for naught. 

If an aspiring teacher can’t get their license; if special education goes unsupported; if schools can no longer get their annual accreditation reports in a timely fashion; there is a crisis in Montana. And, according to the superintendents of the largest districts in the state, the cause is Arntzen, who is “permitting – indeed, encouraging – OPI to bleed to death.” 

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