Montana Lawmakers Say State Superintendent Arntzen Not Fulfilling ‘Constitutional Duties’

Arntzen said action by the legislative interim committee was “political persecution” in a letter read at the microphone by her chief legal counsel

By KEILA SZPALLER, Daily Montanan
Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, conducts a community meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 12, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is repeatedly failing to implement education laws intended to help children, and her office is causing “widespread confusion” among schools, said members of a legislative interim committee in a 6-2 vote Wednesday.

The vote was in support of sending a letter to Arntzen.

“The net result of the decisions that have been made by the superintendent of public instruction is that programs that we have put into law are being disrupted or impeded,” said Chairperson Dave Bedey, R-Hamilton.

Calling for formal action, Bedey said the interim budget committee on education had heard two days of testimony from educators who described harms from the Office of Public Instruction under Arntzen’s leadership.

He said legislation passed during the 2023 session and now being stymied include a public charter school bill (House Bill 549), an update to Indian Education for All (House Bill 338), support for early literacy (House Bill 352), and project to modernize data to help students and teachers (House Bill 367).

Citing concerns raised in committee from education professionals across Montana, Bedey and other legislators voted to send a letter to the lame-duck Republican superintendent calling on her to “return to” fulfilling her Constitutional duties.

Reading from the letter, Bedey said the Office of Public Instruction was interpreting bills contrary to legislative intent and failing to provide clear and timely guidance to school districts.

“The justifications offered by your chief legal counsel were not persuasive,” said Bedey, reading from the letter the committee will submit to Arntzen. “It further became apparent that you at this time have no desire to change course.

“The result has been widespread confusion in the field, potential delays in program implementation, and delivery of programs that do not comport with the law.”

Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, and Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, opposed sending the letter. Esp shared the committee’s concerns but disagreed with the admonition.

“​​I’m disappointed, too,” Esp said. “ But I think the remedy is through the courts, as it has been in the past.”

Arntzen is termed out of the superintendent role and is one of many Republicans running for Montana’s eastern Congressional seat. She declined invitations to attend the meeting, but after the vote, she said action by the committee was “political persecution” in a letter read at the microphone by her chief legal counsel.

“I’m being attacked because I am conservative,” said Rob Stutz, chief legal counsel, on behalf of Arntzen. “I stood up for limited bureaucracy, fought the radical transgender agenda, opposed wokeism, promoted good government and delivered results for our children, parents and schools.”

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said he has been “actively and aggressively” engaged in the education field and related laws for some 20 years. He said during the years, differences of opinion arise on bill interpretation, and sometimes, court intervention is needed.

This time, though, Jones said the Office of Public Instruction is offering a different interpretation to a “high number” of education bills, and he said the pattern concerns him. Additionally, he said, multiple renowned legal experts in education disagree with Arntzen’s legal team.

“I’ve kind of lost confidence that these bills are going to be able to do positive and good work for students because we continually find ourselves here,” Jones said; the committee had discussed similar concerns late last year.

Jones also said the Office of Public Instruction’s pushback on legislative intent was curious given that the majority of legislators voted for the bills in question, and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed them into law.

“It’s strange that we were all so confused we didn’t know what we were voting for or on so many times in a row,” Jones said.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from Box Elder who sponsored one of the bills, shared Jones’ skepticism. He said he worked carefully on an update to Indian Education for All, but was later told “to my face” that a plan for implementation didn’t reflect legislative intent.

“For me to be told that wasn’t my intent — baloney,” Windy Boy said.

Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said the last couple of days had been frustrating. He said the committee set up the meeting to have productive conversations about education legislation, but “in every case, there’s a calculation to impede these bills. And why?”

“The problem is we are hurting kids,” Salomon said. “These are good programs.”

He also said the committee was taking action to solve problems, not to posture: “This is not a publicity stunt. This is to get things resolved.”

Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, said another problem was school districts were not getting the resources and answers they needed from the Office of Public Instruction, and they were stressed. She and other legislators said employees at the agency work hard, but Bedey said “leadership matters.”

In advocating for formal communication from the committee to Arntzen, Bedey said he wanted to relay that she “has failed to meet her constitutional obligation” to execute laws the legislature passed.

But Stutz, in reading the letter from Arntzen and addressing the agency’s approach to bill implementation, said the Office of Public Instruction would not disregard written law. He said doing so would set a “dangerous precedent in Montana.”

“OPI will continue to abide by the written law, as we are constitutionally required to do,” Stutz said for Arntzen. “Anything less would put our state, children and families at risk of agency overreach.”

Voting in support of the bill were Bedey, Jones, Keogh, Windy Boy, Salomon, and Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula.

This story originally appeared in the Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.