Susie Hedalen Claims Victory in Republican Superintendent Primary

Defeating rival Sharyl Allen by a wide margin, Hedalen now faces Democrat Shannon O’Brien in the race to lead Montana’s education agency

By Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press

Susie Hedalen has secured a spot in the general election as the Republican contender for Montana superintendent of public instruction, defeating Sharyl Allen with 62% of the statewide vote in unofficial results posted by the secretary of state’s office.

Hedalen, who currently serves as superintendent for the Townsend Public Schools and vice chair of the Montana Board of Public Education, will face two-term Democratic state Sen. Shannon O’Brien in the Nov. 5 election. O’Brien ran unopposed for her party’s nomination.

“Montanans sent a strong message today that they want a state superintendent who will get education back to basics,” Hedalen said in an email statement late Tuesday. “As your next superintendent, my priorities will be honoring families and teachers, ensuring school safety and expanding educational opportunities for Montana students. I want to thank my supporters for their vote of confidence in the primary, and I look forward to a strong general election campaign.”

Allen congratulated Hedalen on her primary win in a statement Wednesday, saying it was “a privilege to run for office” and wishing “best of the best to Shannon and Susie in the general election.”

The primary battle between Hedalen and Allen was largely quiet this spring as the two focused on delivering their own messages to primary election voters. Both formerly served as deputies to outgoing Republican Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and campaigned heavily on improving state support for Montana public schools and on respecting the rights of Montana families. Hedalen did win a string of endorsements from major Republican leaders early last year, including Gov. Greg Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Congressman Ryan Zinke.

The discussion about family rights rose to prominence for Allen after her April arrest in Madison County on a misdemeanor charge of obstructing a law enforcement officer. Allen, who at the time was serving as superintendent of the Harrison Public School district, allegedly prevented a state investigator from interviewing students as part of a probe into potential sexual misconduct by a Harrison teacher. Allen pleaded not guilty and, in a campaign statement after her arrest, characterized her actions as a “bold stand for parental rights and student protection.” On May 14, the Harrison school board placed Allen on paid administrative leave for the remainder of her contract, which is set to expire on June 30.

Hedalen declined last month to comment directly on her Republican opponent’s legal situation, instead touting her experience in public education and telling Montana Free Press that her focus was on “meeting voters and winning the primary election.” She was appointed to the Board of Public Education by Gianforte in 2021 and confirmed by the Senate Education and Natural Resources Committee that February. Since then, Hedalen has played a direct role in regulatory debates impacting teacher licensing, school quality and instructional standards.

As of Wednesday morning, unofficial results from the Montana Secretary of State’s office showed Hedalen had secured 95,095 votes to Allen’s 57,696 votes, with nearly 90% of ballots counted statewide. So far, those results indicate Hedalen won the support of a majority of Republican voters in all but four counties.

O’Brien, the Democratic candidate in the race, was an education policy advisor to former Gov. Steve Bullock and has served two terms in the state Senate. She successfully carried several new education laws last year, including a bill expanding loan assistance eligibility for young teachers, and sat on the Senate’s education committee during both the 2021 and 2023 sessions. In a statement late Tuesday, O’Brien characterized the general election race for superintendent as a test of competent leadership — one she said Arntzen had “failed” during her eight-year tenure. She suggested that poor track record also reflects on her confirmed Republican opponent.

“Susie is a nice person, but she was deputy superintendent under Elsie,” O’Brien said. “We must do better for our students, families and teachers. It is time to elect a state superintendent that will put our students first, engage with families and be an advocate for teachers.”

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.