HELENA — Just two days after netting the approval of the Senate Education and Natural Resources Committee, Mary Heller and Jane Lee Hamman introduced themselves via Zoom March 12 to their new colleagues on Montana’s Board of Public Education. A vote by the full Senate confirming their appointment by Gov. Greg Gianforte was still a week away. Along with Susie Hedalen, who’d been confirmed separately in late February, they offered brief synopses of their respective backgrounds and longstanding ties to the public school system.
For Heller, a farm kid from the Missouri River Breaks and former director of industry relations at MSU-Northern in Havre, the appointment reflected that education “just seems to always be pulling me back.” Board Chair Darlene Schottle took a moment to congratulate Hedalen on her recent hiring as superintendent of Townsend’s Arrowhead School District. Hamman, a Helena resident, spoke to her Wisconsin roots, her years of work in social services on the East Coast and the decades she spent in the Montana Capitol as a legislative fiscal analyst and assistant director in the governor’s budget office.
The road to those introductions had been a bumpy one. Hedalen was appointed to replace retired Browning school teacher Mary Jo Bremner, whose seven-year term expired in February. But prior to Heller and Hamman coming up for the Senate’s consideration, two other names were in the mix: Ekalaka school teacher Sharon Carroll and retired Missoula judge Jeremiah Lynch. Carroll, a 14-year veteran of the board, had been reappointed by former Gov. Steve Bullock after the 2019 Legislature, and Lynch joined at Bullock’s request in May 2020. Both were subsequently still awaiting Senate confirmation. As Lee newspapers’ Holly Michels reported in December, Gianforte sent Carroll and Lynch a memo after his election win stating that their positions had been reopened. The memo directed them to submit an application to his Serve Montana website if they wished to be considered for continued board membership. Asked how Gianforte ultimately selected his appointees, and how Carroll and Lynch factored into his considerations, the governor’s office responded via email:
“Hundreds of Montanans applied in November and December for consideration to serve on boards and commissions. The governor has identified well-qualified Montanans to serve on the Board of Public Education who can help lead Montana’s comeback and who share his positive vision for Montana’s future.”
When a bill requesting confirmation of Carroll and Lynch went before lawmakers in mid February, public education stakeholders including Board of Public Education Executive Director McCall Flynn urged the Senate’s education committee to approve Lynch’s appointment. Carroll had by that time submitted her letter of resignation. The committee voted not to confirm Lynch, prompting a new bill recommending Gianforte’s appointees. Heller and Hamman were unanimously confirmed by the committee. Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Helena, was one of those yes votes, but the situation involving Carroll and Lynch prompted her to oppose the confirmation on the Senate floor.
“I just felt that the people that were on the board and serving should have been able to stay on and serve out their terms,” McClafferty told Montana Free Press.
McClafferty added that education isn’t the only example of how the changeover from a Democratic administration to a Republican one is rapidly influencing the makeup of Montana’s boards and commissions. “It’s in all the committees,” she said.
Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees and a supporter of Lynch’s confirmation, said the concern raised by the Board of Public Education confirmation process wasn’t a question of the new members’ qualifications or experience, but rather the loss of what the now-former members represented. Bremner was the sole board member hailing from one of Montana’s tribal nations. Carroll was one of only two certified classroom teachers on the board, and its only representative from east of Billings.
“We encourage the governor, as [future] board appointments come open, to keep those three things in mind,” Curtis said.
With the dust settling and one board meeting now under the belts of Gianforte’s appointees, Heller, Hamman and Hedalen are looking to bring their individual experiences and interests to bear. And in a way, each speaks to a key topic driving the current conversation about public education in Montana.
One of the major themes this Legislative session — and a core focus of the Gianforte administration — is strengthening the role of trade-based career and technical education (CTE) at the K-12 and higher-ed levels. Heller has been deeply entrenched in that world for nearly a decade, first through her role at MSU-Northern and then as state director for SkillsUSA, a national nonprofit dedicated to preparing students to enter the workforce. She sees a critical need to change the narrative in K-12 education when it comes to careers in fields such as automotive technology, welding and other skill-heavy trades, as a way to both introduce students to stable professions and address ongoing labor shortages.
“We have hurt ourselves for 30, 40 years, not just in Montana but all across the nation, that we have pushed those viable, amazing careers to the side, labeling them dirty jobs, dirty blue-collar work, in our K-12 system,” Heller said. “And it’s time, I think people are finally realizing we kind of messed up there.”
Heller, who spent several years working for former Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in Washington, D.C., before stepping on at MSU-Northern, first heard about Gianforte’s solicitation for board appointment applications on Facebook last November. She checked a few boxes on the Serve Montana website indicating her interests in natural resources, agriculture and education. Then, in January, she received a call from Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras telling her the governor wanted to appoint her to the Board of Public Education. Heller promptly researched the board’s role in public education, including its oversight of teacher licensing, school accreditation and curriculum development.
Through the board, Heller said, there are opportunities to advance the CTE cause by enhancing K-12 curricula, tapping local talent for instruction and providing students a clearer picture of how what they learn in the classroom connects to the knowledge required in certain industry jobs. When MTFP spoke with her, Heller had just finished speaking to a class at Havre’s water treatment plant about how an interest in biology and chemistry can carry over into the workplace. She said there’s a historic disconnect between student, parent and even educator perception and the reality of how critical trades are to everyday life.
“They probably have no idea that working for a municipality, like in a water treatment facility, is really a good career,” Heller said. “It’s rewarding because they’re doing what they love, working with their hands, using their brain, and they’re providing a community with safe drinking water.”
Hamman shares Heller’s interest in exploring Montana’s K-12 curricula. Her focus lies less on CTE than on what students are learning about civics and American government. She’s a staunch supporter of Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s Stars and Stripes Initiative, a push in partnership with the American Legion to raise funds for American flags for classrooms, as well as Arntzen’s recent updates to social studies curriculum standards. The latter are designed to emphasize student understanding and demonstration of citizenship beginning in kindergarten, with lessons in government and economics layered on as students advance from grade to grade.
During her confirmation testimony this month, Hamman voiced concern about the proliferation of what she called “social justice” curricula across the country. She specifically cited the 1619 Project, an educational initiative launched by The New York Times in 2019 that endeavors to reframe how slavery and the contributions of black Americans fit into lessons on U.S. history. The initiative has generated backlash from some historians and political scientists. Several prominent Republican politicians have similarly criticized it. The Columbia Journalism Review meanwhile praised the 1619 Project, and Vice President Kamala Harris declared it a “powerful and necessary reckoning of our history” when it was first published.
Hamman, recalling the experience of standing along Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool during Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed 1963 “I have a dream” speech, said her desire to push back against such instruction is largely due to concern about the potential long-term damage that could be done by exposing young students to certain narratives.
“When we put students into the position of having to apologize for being white or having to learn that they are victims forever because they’re black, those characteristics cannot be changed,” Hamman said. “They’re the way we’re born. And you mess up kids’, especially young kids’, minds and spirits when you are hanging something around their neck that they can’t do anything about.”
Hamman’s interest in how students learn about civics and government speaks not only to her long career in the Capitol, but also ties closely to her post-retirement work as a state regent for the nonprofit Daughters of the American Revolution. While serving as a DAR regent from 2016 to 2019, Hamman helped deliver 240 “patriotic education” boxes containing resources on government, history and heritage to rural schools in Montana. That experience also opened her eyes to another challenge facing public schools throughout the state. Driving down all those dirt roads, she said, “gave me a better appreciation for rural Montana and the one-room schoolhouses, the challenges that they are facing and the difficulties that they’re having hiring teachers.”
To that end, Hamman was relieved to see a bill establishing incentives for increased starting teacher pay signed into law this month, and intends to investigate additional changes the Board of Public Education can pursue to continue that momentum. One avenue she’s identified is teacher licensing. The Legislature has already proposed streamlining the licensing process for teachers in Montana through House Bill 246, bringing into state law what the board has already put into practice. And the board will be taking a deeper look at its licensing procedures this year as part of a routine review of its administrative rules.
Hedalen has similarly identified licensing as a key area of interest for the board. Prior to her stints with OPI and the Arrowhead School District, she served as a school principal and superintendent in Grass Range, taught in elementary school classrooms in Helena and spent nearly two years as the principal of Winans Elementary in Livingston. Those experiences revealed for Hedalen how difficult it can be for rural teachers to obtain additional certifications without leaving work, and in turn how difficult it can be for rural schools to maintain their accreditation in the absence of certain required staff. For example, Hedalen said, easing an educator’s ability to become certified to teach music while maintaining their employment could benefit both the individual educator and the school itself.
The methods available to the board to tackle that are numerous, Hedalen said, ranging from existing teacher prep programs to examining national test score requirements for state educators. While she sees a need to modernize Montana’s teacher licensing process, Hedalen remains cognizant of maintaining the high quality of education already present in the state.
“I think it’s important that we take a look at flexibilities and ensure we can fill our positions and have a workforce in Montana,” Hedalen said. “That might mean in those critical shortage areas even being more creative. However, Montana has a higher standard, a high bar for educators, and I do think it’s important that we have quality educators.”
According to finance reports filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices, Hedalen was the only Board of Public Education appointee who contributed to Gianforte’s gubernatorial campaign. Asked by MTFP if her $900 in total contributions had any bearing on her appointment, Hedalen said she went through the same online application process as Heller and Hamman, and that she believes her experience was the reason for her selection. She added that it’s well known throughout the state that she’s currently working on a doctoral dissertation about school accreditation systems in Montana and around the country.
In addition to focusing on licensing and accreditation, Hedalen is also primed to take on issues relating to Indian instruction and tribal communities, having been named as the board’s liaison to OPI’s advisory council on Indian education. Hedalen notes she has a graduate certificate in Native American studies and worked with the advisory council during her tenure at OPI. While work toward improving teacher recruitment and retention will certainly impact reservation schools, Hedalen is also focused on supporting ongoing efforts to enhance the role that cultural identity plays in the lives of Native students.
“There’s more smudging happening, a lot more drumming in the schools. There’s great programs where they’re doing archery rather than traditional [physical education],” Hedalen said. Those initiatives, she added, are specifically designed to ensure that “we’re really emphasizing their culture and their heritage in their daily education, as well as making sure we’re working on the traditional languages.”
In a Wednesday appearance billed as the first in a series of events announcing policy priorities for next year’s legislative session, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he wants to raise the exemption threshold for Montana’s business equipment tax.
This fall, 20 school districts across the state are exploring a new approach to standardized testing. The Office of Public Instruction-led pilot, backed by $3 million in federal funding, seeks to replace Montana’s year-end exams with incremental tests throughout the school year.
Despite Montana’s unemployment rate of 2.8% as of August and an above-average labor force participation, Montana’s workforce can’t keep up with the sheer number of unfilled jobs. In Missoula, that means a battle to attract employees.