Montana Office of Public Instruction office
The Montana Office of Public Instruction office at 1201 11th Ave. in Helena, photographed Nov. 30, 2021. Credit: Brad Tyer / MTFP

With roughly a third of its workforce continuing to work remotely, the Montana Office of Public Instruction is downsizing its physical footprint in Helena by vacating one of three office buildings it currently occupies.

Montana Free Press reached out to OPI earlier this month after noticing a “For Lease” sign outside the agency’s office at 1201 11th Ave. In an email sent just prior to her Nov. 19 departure from OPI, Communications Director Anastasia Burton explained that the agency had been leasing the space from a private company for more than double the per-square-foot cost of its other two offices, at 1227 and 1300 11th Ave., both of which are owned by the state. Consolidating on-site staff into the state-owned offices “makes good fiscal sense,” she wrote, adding that those buildings have been modernized in recent years using long-range building funds appropriated by the Legislature.

“This action will permit more budgeting resources to serve our schools and students both in general fund and federal tax dollars,” OPI Deputy Communications Director Brian O’Leary wrote in a follow-up email this week.

According to Steve Skinner, a member of the LLC that owns 1201 11th Ave., OPI began leasing the building in 2006 and signed a 10-year lease renewal in 2016. Skinner said his company met with state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen in early September to discuss the agency vacating the building, and the company agreed to sublease it for the remainder of OPI’s renewal period as “a courtesy for the state.”

“In essence, it was a fiscal responsibility issue,” he said of OPI’s decision.

OPI’s office downsizing is in many ways a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. During much of 2020 and 2021, scores of employees across state government began working remotely due to state directives designed to contain the spread of the virus. Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration called state employees under executive branch purview back to their respective worksites this fall, but Arntzen has allowed her staff to continue working remotely if they chose. O’Leary wrote that OPI surveyed its employees in July and found that 86% of those who were still teleworking felt their productivity had increased, and 84% reported decreased stress levels. Nearly half reported an improved work-life balance, O’Leary added.

OPI appears to be an outlier among state agencies in its continued embrace of telework. In addition to Gianforte’s return-to-work directive, which included a halt to new telework agreements, State Auditor Troy Downing brought his staff back to the office in April.

“We will grant accommodations, when warranted, but believe we do our best work together,” Downing said in an emailed statement to MTFP. “I come from the private sector. Innovation and collaboration have been the hallmark of these endeavors. There is no reason that we can’t work together, for common goals, and do the best work possible just because it’s government. We have created a supportive and functional culture here, mainly because there is a shared work environment, respect, and collaboration amongst the various bureaus and team members of this agency.”

Asked whether Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is continuing to allow staff to work remotely, spokesperson Richie Melby said via email that the office is working with employees “on a case-by-case basis.”According to spokesperson Emilee Cantrell, Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office is reviewing remote work requests on a case-by-case basis as well, and most employees have returned to in-person workspaces.

OPI is not alone in reexamining its physical footprint. On Nov. 8, the Department of Administration announced it had selected Montana-based SMA Architecture & Design to conduct a COVID-19 Remote and Office Workspace Study with the goal of evaluating workspace options across all state agencies. According to DOA, the state owns roughly 1.4 million square feet of office space in the Capitol Complex and leases an additional 738,850 square feet in Helena. Statewide, those totals are 8.1 million and 1.6 million square feet, respectively.

“This project will consider the purpose and function of the workplace, reevaluate the need for square footage, as well as update human resource policies to enable us to strategically meet the needs of a modern workplace and workforce,” DOA Director Misty Ann Giles said in a statement announcing the study in September. “We look forward to increasing efficiencies, saving taxpayers money, and continuing to prioritize our customer service.”

The project timeline calls for data collection and assessment over the next six months, with the goal of implementing any new strategies or changes in 2023. In the meantime, the secretary of state’s office said it currently has no plans to reduce its office space. Downing said he has no such plans either.

“We are not looking at downsizing,” Downing said. “We are exploring ways to modify or replace our current space when the time is appropriate. We want workspace that fosters collaboration and does not employ simple old-school type silos with single work streams and single streams of communication amongst silos. We believe that proximity, hallway conversations, comradery, and shared space foster growth and build stronger teams with shared missions, mutual respect, and a ‘team’ mentality.”

As for Knudsen’s office, Cantrell wrote via email that the Department of Justice will “continue to look for ways to use taxpayer dollars more efficiently.”

“For example,” she continued, “earlier this year, the Department moved the [Montana Highway Patrol] headquarters out of a rented facility in Helena to a state-owned facility in Boulder, saving taxpayer dollars.”

This story was updated Nov. 30, 2021, to include post-publication comment from the attorney general’s office.

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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...