Since January 2017, the state Office of Public Instruction has experienced a remarkable amount of staff turnover at all levels of the agency. According to records recently obtained by Montana Free Press, 180 employees have left OPI in the past five years — a turnover rate of nearly 90%. Former OPI staffers and leaders of Montana education associations told MTFP the result has been a significant loss of operational knowledge at the agency charged with overseeing public education across the state.

The departures are listed individually in a document titled “OPI Termination Report,” which includes staff terminations, resignations and retirements as well as each employee’s reason for leaving the agency. An Oct. 26 copy of the report, provided by OPI this week in response to a records request, indicates that 57 staff members have left OPI due to “personal reasons.” Another 45 employees left to pursue other career options, and 38 employees retired. Two departures were attributed to employee deaths. 

Two former OPI employees interviewed by MTFP cited Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s management style as their primary reason for accelerating their retirement plans, describing an atmosphere of intrusive behavior, condescension and lack of understanding of agency operations.

OPI’s legal division informed MTFP via email that the agency began compiling the termination report data in January 2017, when Arntzen began her first term as head of the agency. Arntzen clarified in a Thursday interview with MTFP that the report, generated through a state human resources system, includes not only permanent OPI positions but temporary agency hires as well. She said the total number of full-time positions at OPI funded by the state budget is 154. OPI has an additional 20.5 “modified positions” that are tied to various grants, as well as 27.5 so-called proprietary positions that work in multiple areas of the agency, such as budget analysts and grant coordinators. That makes for a total of 202 positions at OPI. 

Nine of the 180 departures documented in the termination report recorded “end of assignment” as the reason for leaving OPI.

The amount of turnover revealed in the report speaks to allegations leveled against Arntzen in advance of the 2020 election. Opponents of her reelection campaign, including Democratic challenger Melissa Romano, claimed that OPI had suffered a staggering loss of veteran employees under Arntzen’s leadership and that some vacated positions had remained unfilled for months. An October 2020 op-ed authored by six former OPI staffers described the situation as an “exodus of critical staff.”

Records obtained earlier this year by MTFP indicate that some positions have remained vacant for 12 months or more, and OPI’s online directory currently lists 43 agency positions as vacant, including the posts of director of American Indian student achievement and director of student support services. As of Nov. 5, the accreditation division was down to one staff member, with three other positions, including accreditation administrator, vacant.

A source outside OPI also shared an email with MTFP Friday revealing that OPI Chief of Staff Sarah Swanson is leaving the agency to take a position with Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration effective next week, and that Communications Director Anastasia Burton will depart OPI later this month.

Asked if she had any concerns about the volume of turnover documented in the report, Arntzen said the departure numbers are “pretty similar annually,” leading her to suggest that the number of departures has not been influenced by specific factors such as her entry into the office in 2017 or the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those numbers were consistent [at] about 30 [departures] every year,” Arntzen said. “That’s what that report shares with me. So I think it’s consistent every year.” 

According to the termination report, OPI has seen 44 staff departures in 2021, one of which was attributed to an employee death. That’s the highest annual departure count listed on the report. The second highest was in 2018, when 38 employees left the agency — 26 of them for “personal reasons.”

IMPACTS OF TURNOVER

Departures of OPI staff have been a source of increasing concern for leaders at several Montana education associations in recent years. Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana, said he’s noticed “significant turnover” in staffing at OPI’s licensing division, which is charged with ensuring that teachers in Montana classrooms meet the professional qualifications set by the state. Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis described the continuing months-long vacancy in OPI’s director of special education position as “worrisome,” adding that the special education division is a particularly important place for the agency to be “stacked up.” She described the loss of longtime OPI staffers as a “real drain on the institutional knowledge of the agency.”

“It’s really frustrating to call and need a question answered, and to not have anybody in the office who has the information and needs to take the time to look it up or find somebody who knows and get back to you,” Curtis said. “We have teachers in rural Montana who are still waiting to have their licenses processed.”

Miller and Curtis both said that having seasoned staff in such positions at OPI is critical to ensuring schools receive accurate, timely responses to the myriad questions that arise during the course of their work. And Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton pointed out that delays in receiving such guidance can have consequential ramifications on districts and, by extension, the students they serve. Given the pandemic-induced constraints on the construction industry, Melton said, incorrect guidance or lags in confirming that a classroom renovation or new facility qualifies for certain funding can stymie a project. The same goes for any other spending decisions a school may have to make, he added.

“If the answer’s ‘no,’ where that thing’s right in front of you and you can grab it or not based upon the answer, and that ‘no’ is incorrect, you’ve lost an opportunity,” Melton said. “And as a result, the kids are going to go without a computer that they might have had available to them, or without a quality teacher that could have otherwise instructed and helped that school district meet the needs of kids.”

Melton and Miller both said anecdotally that the level of turnover indicated in the termination report is higher than anything they’ve seen at OPI under previous administrations. Melton added that many OPI staffers whose experience he used to rely on have left the agency, but that he has still been able to depend on a few key personnel including Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen to answer questions from his organization’s members.

“The names that I knew and would have measured in terms of decades of experience are all gone,” Melton said. “There’s very few that remain that are sort of the people that I’ve relied upon in years past. But, you know, we’re all getting older and I think that that’s a piece of it — there are definitely some retirements there as well.”

Arntzen said she is taking steps to recruit new employees to vacant positions and retain existing employees, including a 50-cent-per-hour raise in January 2020 and continuing to allow staff to work remotely. About a third of the office is currently working from home, she added. Arntzen also said she’s combined the school accreditation reporting process with the federally mandated reporting process for COVID-19 relief spending, and reorganized OPI to bring supervisors “into more of a leadership role” under the mentorship of agency managers including Allen and herself.

“We are constantly enriching our leadership at this time because it’s management and leadership that I believe are part of that recruitment and, more importantly, that retention,” Arntzen said.

Regarding concerns about loss of institutional knowledge, Arntzen said “education has changed” over the past decade. There’s a new Congress and new federal education law, she said, referencing the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as new regulations and flexibilities adopted by the Montana Legislature and the Board of Public Education. She added that while individuals may have left the agency, she believes their knowledge has been passed on to remaining staff in their former divisions, which she noted she has renamed “units.”

“Units didn’t walk out, individuals did,” Arntzen said. “But that knowledge was embraced there within that unit and what was left.”

Tammy Lacey told MTFP that the Montana Board of Public Education, which she chairs, has been aware of concerns about staffing levels at OPI for several years. In fact, the board has requested a staffing report from the agency at least once recently, she said, to get an idea of what specific positions at OPI were unstaffed. Lacey said she is unaware of any difficulties or issues that have arisen for the board as a result of agency turnover or vacancies to date, and said OPI has indicated “they were doing all that they could in order to get people into those positions.” 

Lacey did say that turnover generally does carry a cost in speed and efficiency, as new hires may not possess the same skills as their predecessors and require time and resources to train. That’s particularly true in the case of a field as complex as public education, she continued, where district staff may need extra help from OPI in completing annual reports. Special education is a particularly complicated area, Lacey explained, as it’s governed by numerous state and federal regulations and fraught with potential litigation. Lacey has been on the board for roughly 10 years. Prior to that, she served in various roles in Montana public schools including as a teacher, HR director, and superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools.

“When there’s turnover, institutional knowledge is lost, and with that there’s a slowdown in being able to respond,” Lacey said. “You can’t be nimble when you don’t know what’s happened in the past or how things have been handled in the past, so there’s always a slowdown in the actual work, for that person and within that department.”

Madalyn Quinlan worked at OPI for 27 years and served as chief of staff to three state superintendents prior to her appointment to the Board of Public Education in 2019. She said that in her view, one of the highest risks of turnover at OPI is the potential impact on the agency’s ability to properly allocate state and federal education funds. Public education makes up roughly a third of Montana’s state budget, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic Congress has granted hundreds of millions of relief dollars to Montana schools. OPI is the primary conduit for delivering those funds, and is tasked with ensuring that school districts adhere to the guidelines set for COVID relief spending.

“All of this stuff is highly detailed,” Quinlan said. “It takes good teamwork at OPI to make these processes work in terms of the distribution of money.”

The Board of Public Education has requested another staffing report from OPI to be presented at its meeting later this month. Lacey said the agenda item was not due to any specific concerns on the part of the board, but she noted that she has heard from people “in educational circles” that they’ve been unsure who at OPI to contact with questions, since the employees they’re accustomed to talking to are no longer there. Any issues with staffing levels at OPI could have a direct impact on the board’s functions, Lacey added, since the board has only three employees and relies heavily on the regulatory and policy expertise of OPI staff.

“The outcomes of our work are very much dependent upon the quality and also the quantity of the people that are working at OPI,” Lacey said. “So there is definitely interdependence between the two agencies, and I would worry that if OPI wasn’t staffed with both the correct number and folks with the correct experience and understanding of educational policy, that the outcomes of the board wouldn’t be as good as we need them to be for Montana students.”

REASONS FOR LEAVING

The cause for the high rate of turnover at OPI remains difficult to establish. MTFP reached out to half a dozen former OPI staffers to ask about their reasons for leaving, all of whom either did not return messages or declined to speak on the record for fear of professional consequences. Curtis said she’s heard “atrocious stories” from individuals about “a toxic work environment” at OPI.

“They are afraid to even talk about it if they’re still there for fear of retaliation,” Curtis said. “Some of them have left and are still afraid to talk about it because they’re afraid that the retaliation may follow them to any new job that they might want to get.”

Two retired OPI employees did speak on the record about their own experiences. Former Assistant Superintendent for Education Services BJ Granberry and former Accreditation Program Manager Patty Muir both cited Arntzen’s management style as the primary reason for advancing their retirement plans, describing an atmosphere of intrusive behavior, condescension and a lack of understanding of agency operations by OPI leadership under Arntzen.

Granberry started at OPI in September 1989, serving as a division director for more than 20 years before assuming the assistant superintendent of education services post in August 2016. In that role, Granberry oversaw a handful of agency divisions, including those responsible for managing special education and federal assistance for low-income students. Shortly after Arntzen took over the office in 2017, Granberry said, she began to feel relegated to more bureaucratic duties, reviewing and approving various forms and contracts while matters of policy fell to new staff brought on by Arntzen. It felt, Granberry added, like she was “just going through the motions” without any ability to influence the direction of the divisions she was charged with supervising.

“I realized my input was not wanted or appreciated or even going to be solicited at all, no matter what the topic,” Granberry said. “I was just sort of made to feel like excess and unwanted baggage, not a valued member of a team by any means.”

Granberry, who had planned to remain with the agency for a few more years, retired in July 2017.

Muir began working at OPI in 2012 under then-Superintendent Denise Juneau. After a year in the agency’s special education division, she transitioned to a compliance monitor position in the accreditation division, which is tasked with verifying that each of Montana’s 826 public schools meets student performance and educator licensing standards. Muir eventually worked her way up to accreditation program director, overseeing an accreditation staff of two.

During Juneau’s tenure, Muir said, her division and others at OPI operated with a high degree of autonomy, with leadership displaying an air of “faith and trust” in the experience of division heads and offering encouragement and support. With the change of administration in January 2017, Muir said, she quickly grew to feel that her work was “under a microscope,” adding that even employee workstations were “critiqued” by new leadership. She described the situation as “very intrusive and very uncomfortable.”

Muir also became frustrated with what she characterized as frequent and repetitive questioning regarding her division’s responsibilities and processes. In addition to public K-12 schools, OPI’s accreditation division monitors educator preparation programs at Montana colleges and universities for compliance with state standards. Muir did not name Arntzen specifically, but said new leadership in 2017 was unaware that OPI had that oversight responsibility.

“Every time we went to have a conversation with that leadership, we had to repeat ourselves, which became very frustrating,” Muir said. “The process is not that difficult, but it was clearly evident as well that there were a lot of areas in the agency that leadership did not understand or did not have a complete handle on what we did and who we did it for.”

Muir left OPI on Sept. 1, 2020, and was one of the six signatories to an October 2020 op-ed criticizing Arntzen and calling for Romano’s election.

Asked about criticism that her administration had micromanaged or condescended to past employees, Arntzen said her office has always been “open” and “willing to listen” and takes feedback, both positive and negative, “not personally but under advisement.” Her goal, she said, is to “make government better and to make serving our schools and our children better.” Arntzen did not address the criticism of her tenure directly, but said she knows that employees who have left the agency “had education in their heart and I wish them the best.”

“[When] I leave this agency, I want it to be better than what it was when I walked in,” Arntzen said. 

This story was updated Nov. 9, 2021, to correct details of Patty Muir’s work at OPI.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.