Elsie Arntzen
Superintendent of Public Instruction Else Arntzen speaks at a parental rights rally at the state Capitol on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

MISSOULA — Montana’s Board of Public Education was briefed about staff vacancies and recruitment challenges by Office of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen Thursday.

According to Allen’s report, 24.49 full-time-equivalent (FTE) positions will be vacant at OPI as of Nov. 21.  Allen told the board the agency has a total of 202 positions, including 154 full-time positions funded by the Legislature through House Bill 2. She added that 14.76 of the vacant FTEs are currently at varying stages of the recruitment process for new hires. OPI has extended employment offers to candidates for five of those positions, Allen said, and four have accepted. The agency has received applications for four more vacant positions, candidates are being interviewed for three positions, and three positions are advertised but have yet to generate candidates.

Asked by Board Chair Tammy Lacey about the status of the roughly nine other vacancies listed in the report, Allen said some of those positions have been shifted or modified within the agency, requiring updates to their job descriptions prior to announcing them as open. Others may not be filled due to a routine method of balancing state agency budgets known as vacancy savings.

Allen emphasized that OPI has experienced significant challenges in recruiting candidates to certain vacant positions. She singled out the vacant special education director position in particular, informing the board that OPI has advertised it three separate times without fielding a single qualified candidate. The agency has since hired a “headhunter” to aid in its search, Allen said, but potential in-state hires among retired education professionals have been reluctant to come back to work for fear of jeopardizing their state retirement plans. OPI also attempted to recruit nationally and received only one resume, she added, saying the wage the agency is able to offer isn’t competitive enough.


“Termination Report” sheds light on turnover at OPI

Records obtained by Montana Free Press this week show that 180 employees have left the Office of Public Instruction since Superintendent Elsie Arntzen first took office. The number sheds new light on criticism and concern about loss of expertise at the agency charged with overseeing Montana’s public school system.

“We can’t compete financially,” Allen said. “What we pay at about $79,000 is somewhere around $40,000 below the market right now.” 

Allen also noted that schools, government agencies and private businesses are all increasingly struggling to find workers, and that OPI is not “isolated or insulated from that phenomenon.” Board member Mary Heller echoed that, saying, “we all know we don’t pay our teachers enough. We certainly don’t pay our OPI staffers enough.” Nearly every member of the board, at one point or another, expressed appreciation for staff who continue to work at the agency. Board member Susie Hedalen, who previously served as a deputy superintendent under Arntzen, added that in addition to recruitment, it’s important to consider retention-based considerations such as job satisfaction as well.

“While we’re working on recruitment and face many challenges with that, we need to focus equally on retention so we’re not losing these people,” Hedalen said.

Montana Rural Education Association Executive Director Dennis Parman challenged the OPI’s assessment of vacancies during public comment Wednesday while speaking on behalf of the Montana Public Education Center, which represents six state education associations including the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the School Administrators of Montana. Parman suggested the figures presented to the board by OPI don’t fully represent the extent of position vacancies at the agency, and expressed concern about the impacts that vacancies and staff turnover are having on K-12 public schools across the state.

It’s the understanding of MPEC members, Parman told the board, that 51 OPI positions were vacant as of last week. Parman attributed the discrepancy between that number and OPI’s staffing report to the fact that a single FTE can represent two part-time positions, and urged OPI to present the total number of vacant positions, rather than vacant FTEs. 

“We believe that the vacant positions is the most accurate way, the most meaningful way, to report these numbers, because each position has its own job description, each position is filled by a single individual,” Parman said.

Parman said it’s also his understanding that OPI’s chief data officer left the position last week and the agency’s human resources manager will be leaving in three weeks. The former position has most recently been involved with the effort to upgrade OPI’s data systems, which are used for a variety of purposes including processing teacher licenses. The upgrade is being funded with $13.4 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

Earlier this month, Montana Free Press received data from OPI in response to a records request showing that 180 employees have left the agency since January 2017, when state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen first took office. Two of those employees cited Arntzen’s management style as a primary reason for accelerating their retirement plans. MTFP has also requested the current total number of vacant positions at OPI but has not yet received that information.

During his public comment before the board Wednesday, Parman put the vacancy issue into context, explaining that members of Montana’s public education system have experienced increasing difficulty getting timely responses from the agency. 

“Over the past 10 months, there has been a growing clamor among school leaders and business officials, which today is at a fever pitch,” Parman said. “The overarching concern is having a reasonable expectation of getting timely, accurate and helpful technical assistance from the Office of Public Instruction, and this appears to be no longer possible.”

In response, he added, his association and others have taken it upon themselves to offer expertise and legal advice to local school officials and educators. Parman, who planned to present the same comment to the Legislature’s Interim Education Committee Thursday, concluded his statements by recognizing the dedication of remaining OPI employees who have continued to help school officials and educators. “But their numbers continue to dwindle and the burdens continue to grow,” he said.

After the board’s meeting on Wednesday, Arntzen told MTFP that OPI has recently filled a vacancy in its director of American Indian student achievement position, and had filled a new American Indian cultural and language immersion specialist position created by the Legislature this year. Asked about Parman’s statements, Arntzen said she couldn’t offer a response since he’d delivered them before she arrived at the meeting.

“Over the past 10 months, there has been a growing clamor among school leaders and business officials, which today is at a fever pitch. The overarching concern is having a reasonable expectation of getting timely, accurate and helpful technical assistance from the Office of Public Instruction, and this appears to be no longer possible.”

Montana Rural Education Association Executive Director Dennis Parman

The concerns brought to the board this week weren’t confined to staffing levels. Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana, spoke for the Montana Public Education Center on Wednesday about the challenges raised for school officials by political polarization arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Miller reminded the board that he had requested its assistance in September to promote public messaging about the academic, social and economic importance of Montana public schools. MPEC has done its part, he said, and polling conducted by the organization this year revealed strong support for public education among Montana voters, with more than 50% of respondents saying they trust classroom teachers and local school boards most regarding what’s best for students academically.

Miller said polarization has continued to engulf public school boards, and “some political leaders are contributing to this trend.” Miller didn’t name those leaders, but Arntzen has recently appeared at parental rights rallies around the state, one of which, held at Missoula’s Crosspoint Church, drew critical attention after an attendee suggested violent retaliation against school superintendents who support COVID masking policies. Arntzen later denounced the comment, and the attendee, Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades, apologized for the remark.

“The harm of this misguided, vitriolic and angry approach is not only creating an inappropriate example for our children on how to resolve complicated issues,” Miller said, “but is instilling a counterproductive culture of mistrust, harming the ability of our community schools to recruit and retain quality educators and support staff to meet the needs of our children.”

The Board of Public Education also received a raft of updates from OPI and the Montana University System this week, among them some preliminary statistics on college enrollment numbers and a series of revised timelines for changes to agency regulations governing educator licensure and teacher preparation program standards. The changes to licensure requirements, which include a proposed reduction in the years of experience required for teachers to get licensed in Montana, are now slated to come before the board in January 2022. The board will likely get its first look at revisions to the standards applied to college prep programs in March 2022.

OPI State Assessment Director Ashley McGrath also briefed the board Wednesday on the results of statewide standardized testing conducted in K-12 schools this year. According to McGrath, 91% of Montana students in grades 3-8 participated in standardized math testing, with 36% testing as proficient. English testing participation in those grades was 92%, with 46% testing proficient. Among high school juniors, McGrath added, 86.5% completed the ACT in 2021, with a statewide math proficiency rate of 27% and a statewide English language proficiency rate of 45%. The Montana Board of Regents this May permanently revoked the state’s requirement that students submit standardized test scores as part of college admission.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...