Credit: Romano photo by Madeline Broom/Community News Service. Arntzen photo provided by the Arntzen campaign.

As Montanans stirred in the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, one of the state’s marquee races was still too close to call. An early Democratic lead from the night before had already dissolved, and when the election dust finally settled, five-term state legislator and retired Billings schoolteacher Elsie Arntzen emerged as the first Republican elected to the post of state superintendent of public instruction in nearly three decades.

For Arntzen’s 2016 opponent, Democrat Melissa Romano, the defeat meant a return to her Helena elementary school classroom. She started an online doctoral program in curriculum and assessment at Walden University, and was named Montana Teacher of the Year by the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation in 2018. All the while, she kept a close eye on the Office of Public Instruction, the Legislature and her former opponent. When the 2020 election cycle finally rolled around, Romano told Montana Free Press, “I just couldn’t sit back and watch it anymore.”

And so Montanans got ringside seats to sequel match-up between two educators — one an incumbent with a widely known political identity, the other a determined challenger resolved to oust a past-and-present rival. Both have crafted positive messages about fighting for students, for teachers and for the sanctity of classrooms across the state. Yet they’re never far from ducking in and leveling a blow, as MTN News’ superintendent debate in late August showed. 

Given the chance to pose a question directly to Romano, Arntzen rebuked what she called her opponent’s “hateful criticism” and “untruthful agenda” and asked, “Why are you a schoolyard bully?”

Kevin Leatherbarrow, the Libertarian candidate for superintendent, told MTFP he doesn’t mind “sitting back and watching the show.” But he switched off the debate, to which he had not been invited, after “five or ten minutes.”

“The tension in the state of Montana is the same as it is across the nation,” said Leatherbarrow, who’s sidestepped the fray to campaign on advocacy for expanded online learning, special education needs and establishing a school voucher system. “People are tired of the Democrats, they’re tired of the Republicans doing absolutely nothing and just taking these attacks on each other.”

In defending her ground, Arntzen has routinely referenced her work ethic and reduction of bureaucracy at OPI. Her campaign did not respond to multiple emails requesting an interview, and a voicemail left on Arntzen’s cell phone went unanswered. But in last month’s debate, she framed her first term as a quest to fix an agency plagued by years of Democratic leadership.

“You know, I came into this role, and for 30 years it had been under one guidance, one leadership, and it was very bureaucratic, very heavy government,” Arntzen said during that debate. “We’ve turned the ship, we’ve turned government to now be a servitude. In other words, we are serving our Montana students, and we’re making sure that there’s great understanding of what government can do.”

Responding to a Montana Public Radio questionnaire, Arntzen also mentioned several initiatives she’s championed as superintendent, including the Montana Ready program aimed at preparing students for college and careers. She repeatedly accused Gov. Steve Bullock this summer and fall of failing to consult her office about guidelines for reopening schools in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, at one point fueling a skirmish over the state’s mask mandate. One of her most consistent refrains is that after four terms in the state House and one in the state Senate, she has built a strong relationship with the Legislature, which will once again be reviewing the state’s education budget beginning in January.

“Our state budget right now is in peril,” Arntzen said during the September debate. “We have people that are unemployed, so let’s be realistic, and when we ask the Legislature, all learning matters across our state.”

Romano singles out this very issue — legislative advocacy — as the spark that lit her second campaign for the superintendent’s office. Throughout the tense budget negotiations that defined the 2017 session, Romano watched for signs of Arntzen’s support for or opposition to bills affecting public schools. When a program offering student loan assistance to Montana teachers went unfunded, Arntzen issued a statement expressing her hope that funding could be secured “in a future biennium when the state is in a better situation fiscally.” During the 2019 Legislature, Rep. Greg DeVries, R-Jefferson City, carried House Bill 303, a measure to eliminate attendance requirements and compulsory enrollment in Montana, making school voluntary and, as DeVries put it, “restor[ing] freedom to families.” After the bill’s introduction, Arntzen’s office told Lee Newspapers that it was “not taking a position on HB 303 at this time.” 

“I can’t imagine a previous superintendent who wouldn’t be rising in complete opposition to such a crazy bill,” Romano said. “And again, Superintendent Arntzen was just nowhere to be found. She’s just completely absent and has made it her mission to not be an advocate for public schools.”

HB 303 was cited by the Montana Federation of Public Employees’ board of directors in its Sept. 8, 2020, condemnation of Arntzen’s candidacy.

Lack of leadership isn’t the only charge Romano has leveled against her opponent. Arntzen’s participation in a January 2019 school choice rally, hosted by the Montana Family Foundation and Americans for Prosperity outside the Montana Capitol, is another sticking point. So is the departure of three separate deputy superintendents from OPI since 2017, Romano said, and the apparent shrinking of staff at the agency’s Helena office.

The latter is a concern echoed by Patty Muir, the former accreditation program director at OPI, who after retiring last month wrote an op-ed endorsing Romano. Muir told Montana Free Press that when she first joined OPI as an accreditation specialist in 2012, the division had a staff of eight. Over the years, Muir said, positions that came open were left vacant, and that division’s staff is now down to two.

“We spent probably 75% of our time on the phone and emails fielding questions from our superintendents and county supes, especially during this time of year when they’re filling out their annual report,” Muir said. “And I can probably bank on the fact that they’re not getting provided services and responses in a timely fashion like they’re used to.”

These are just a few of the swings Romano has taken at Arntzen. But like the incumbent, Romano drops her gloves long enough to share a more affirmative vision for the office. The hyper-localized impacts of the pandemic have strengthened her belief that the power to make decisions must lie with individual districts, with the superintendent ready to advise and assist. Despite the limitations COVID-19 has put on in-person campaigning, Romano said she’s keenly aware of the pressure the disease puts on teachers, exacerbating extant concerns about teacher retention and recruitment.

“They’re worried about their own health, they’re worried about their students’ health, and they are dealing with a lot of stress,” Romano said. “So I’m very worried about just the trauma aftermath of COVID, and how that is going to affect keeping teachers in Montana and getting teachers to come here.”

As for new initiatives, Romano says it’s high time that Montana established social/emotional learning standards for its public school system. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, 18 states have already adopted standards guiding the development of students’ social and emotional skills. In Montana, Romano said, such a push could be as robust as a statewide program, or as simple as encouraging individual teachers and districts to develop their own strategies.

“I’m not saying we’re going to add on to our teachers’ plates, because believe me, our teachers’ plates are already really full,” she added. “I’m interested in these standards because I think a renewed focus on it would be important to move Montana forward.”

Freelance writer Alex Sakariassen has spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, Sakariassen splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at alex.sakariassen@gmail.com.