Charter School Commission Kicks Off Amid Pending Lawsuit

The statewide Community Choice Schools Commission met for the first time this week despite a court order that bars the body from creating new charter schools in Montana

By Denali Sagner
A student at their desk at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A new state commission tasked with creating “community choice” charter schools in Montana met for the first time on Monday amid a pending lawsuit that has blocked the body’s ability to formally approve any charters.

The seven-member Community Choice Schools Commission was formed earlier this year after lawmakers passed House Bill 562, one of two diverging bills designed to create charter schools in Montana. The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, creates publicly-funded “community choice” schools that are approved by the statewide commission and are governed by school boards elected only by teachers and parents of students at the school, as opposed to the public school board elections held for any other school district.

House Bill 562 saw support from conservative lawmakers and “school choice” lobbyists, and faced pushback from public education advocates who raised a number of concerns about the legality of the commission and the quality of the proposed “community choice” schools.

A group of public education advocates in June sued the state to block the enforcement of House Bill 562, citing numerous legal and constitutional violations. Plaintiffs, including a number of organizations under the Montana Quality Education Coalition, called the closed school board elections “a straightforward violation of the right to vote,” and raised concerns about funneling public dollars into schools that will be exempt from the vast majority of Montana’s education laws.

On Sept. 6, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Chris Abbott issued a partial preliminary injunction, allowing the commission to convene but barring it from considering charter school applications and approving charters. Per the court order, the commission is allowed to convene, create bylaws and hire staff.

At the commission’s inaugural meeting this week, five of its seven members (two slots had yet to be filled by the time the body met on Monday) gave introductions, approved a set of by-laws and heard presentations from the Attorney General’s Office and Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras.

In opening the meeting, commission chair Trish Schreiber discouraged the public from commenting on House Bill 562 or the pending lawsuit. Schreiber, a resident of Helmville, is an educational therapist for students with learning challenges and is a senior education fellow at the Frontier Institute, a Helena-based “free market think tank.” Schreiber, alongside the Frontier Institute, helped to craft and pass House Bill 562 during the legislative session.

Schreiber said she is looking forward to creating “high-quality, learner-centered public schools” that are “built from the community up, not regulated from the top down.”

Other commission members include Dee Brown, Cathy Kincheloe, Mark Hufstetler, Katie Wright and Jon Rutt.

Brown is a resident of Hungry Horse and former Republican state lawmaker who served eight terms across the Montana House and Senate. Before serving in the Legislature, Brown taught first through sixth graders in public schools for 26 years.

Dee Brown is seen at her desk in the Senate Chamber. Beacon file photo

Kincheloe is a Whitefish realtor who spent two decades working in charter schools and for charter school management agencies in the Midwest, including EdisonLearning and Distinctive Schools. She said she hopes to bring “a practitioners voice” to the commission.

Hufstetler is a Kalispell “businessperson and entrepreneur” who said he joined the commission because of his interest in philanthropy. He said he hopes to offer insight as an entrepreneur.

“I really think that this changing of the working environment is why we’re seeing so many states, and the state of Montana, having bills like these passed,” Hufstetler said. “I look forward to seeing what I can learn and what I actually can provide to this”

Wright is a public Montessori teacher in Helena. She said she is looking forward to contributing to the commission while ensuring public education remains accessible for Montana’s students.

Rutt was appointed to the commission by Montana Superintendent of Schools Elsie Arntzen on Monday and was not at the meeting. Rutt is a resident of Laurel and has owned and operated a water treatment equipment business, a car wash and a rental property. He has also served on a number of boards, including for the Billings Symphony, the Montana Community Foundation and the Laurel Montana Community Foundation.

After approving bylaws, two attorneys for the state, Thane Johnson and Alwyn Lansing, gave the commission a brief overview of its permitted activities under the partial injunction and urged the commission to seek independent legal counsel.

“This is good legislation and it can be fixed, and Judge Abbott kind of pointed to what he was concerned about,” Johnson said, adding that the commission can address those concerns by setting clear bylaws. 

Cups in a window sill at Somers Middle School on Sept. 6, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Though Johnson and Lansing repeatedly urged the commission to seek out legal advice, the Community Choice Schools Commission does not receive funding from the state, prompting commission members to question whether or not retaining legal counsel would be possible. Schreiber urged the commission to forgo seeking out counsel at this point, given that attorneys assisted in the crafting of the bylaws. Currently, all expenses incurred for travel and lodging must be covered by the commission members themselves. Commission members are not being paid.

The commission will be able to accept private donations in a special revenue account, which will be set up by the Board of Public Education (BPE). Schreiber said that numerous foundations and organizations have expressed interest in making donations to the commission.

The commission is attached to BPE for administrative purposes, and BPE is responsible for services such as establishing the special revenue account and helping to carry out meetings.

BPE testified in opposition to House Bill 562 during the legislative session, arguing that the Community Choice Schools Commission infringes on BPE’s constitutional duties to oversee the public education system in Montana.

“Under this bill, the board would receive a report and provide administrative duties. The board would have no ability to hold charters accountable like they do any other public school in Montana,” McCall Flynn, executive director of BPE, said during a February House Judiciary Committee hearing. “We understand that the intent is to have autonomous authority over the public charter system, but I would argue that the board must play a larger role in that process to ensure we maintain our constitutional authority over the public system as required in the constitution.”

The Community Choice Schools Commission is set to meet again on Nov. 1 at 1 p.m.

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