Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is sworn in to her second term outside the state Capitol on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

On Tuesday morning, superintendents at all eight of Montana’s AA public school districts sent a letter to state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen expressing “no confidence in your performance as Montana’s chief public education officer.” Over the course of five pages, the superintendents alleged a host of “deficiencies” at the Office of Public Instruction that they attributed exclusively to Arntzen’s leadership.

“The bottom line,” the superintendents wrote, “is that for us to best do our jobs, we need you to be doing yours.”

The letter was first published publicly by Jenn Rowell at the Great Falls-based online news outlet The Electric, and was sent on letterhead from the office of Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham. It was also signed by public school superintendents in Bozeman, Belgrade, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula — districts, the letter noted, that collectively oversee 64,000 students, or roughly 45% of Montana children attending public schools. 

Montana Free Press contacted OPI Tuesday for a response from Arntzen and received an email statement in which Arntzen acknowledged receipt of the letter. Arntzen wrote that she takes the superintendents’ concerns “humbly and seriously” and said the pandemic has created “growing pains” for OPI and individual districts alike.

related

“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 must work together to provide the best opportunities for every student in Montana through respectful actions,” Arntzen continued. “The OPI will continue to make necessary changes, revisit our programs, communication, and outreach, and strategically work to ensure that every district has the tools they need from the OPI. While we have multiple touchpoints of communication with school districts and their leadership each month, your letter has made it clear that it’s not enough. I welcome increased mutual dialogue. Your concerns are noted, and I look forward to continuing to make OPI the best office possible.”

The email was also sent to all eight superintendents who signed the letter.

In the superintendents’ letter, Upham and the others informed Arntzen that her leadership at OPI “has created serious deficiencies in the services your office is obligated to provide.” They attributed those deficiencies, in part, to the rate of staff turnover at the agency since Arntzen took office in January 2017, which, as MTFP previously reported, is nearly 90%. The superintendents claimed that turnover has caused “significant disruption in schools across the state” and “effectively left no muscle in our state’s education agency.” 

“To continue with that metaphor,” the superintendents added, “you are permitting — indeed, encouraging — OPI to bleed to death.”

Among the specific issues cited are a backlog of teacher license applications, an apparent lack of movement on updating state education content standards, and inadequate staffing in OPI’s accreditation department, which is charged with ensuring that educators and schools meet a litany of state requirements. The letter criticized Arntzen for “moving forward too quickly” in a process to revise teacher licensing regulations and for speaking out against proposed changes to the state’s Professional Code of Ethics for teachers.

The superintendents also took issue with Arntzen’s recent appearances at parental rights rallies and her messaging on school COVID-19 protocols, which include her advocacy for a rule change that would allow parents to “opt out” of local school policies. They characterized such messaging as having “undermined the role and responsibilities” of locally elected school officials. 

“Your conduct destabilizes the credibility of our local schools, the same ones you are elected to represent and help and on whose behalf you are supposed to advocate,” the superintendents wrote.

The statements in Tuesday’s letter put a tighter focus on several broad concerns expressed in public comment to the Board of Education last month on behalf of the Montana Public Education Center, a coalition of six major education associations in the state. Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association, testified to the board that local school employees across the state have experienced increasing difficulty getting adequate and timely assistance from OPI due to turnover at the agency. Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana, spoke to the negative impacts that political polarization is having on local school officials, adding that “some political leaders are contributing to this trend.” Miller and Parman later repeated their statements during public comment at a separate meeting of the State Board of Education.

The letter sent to Arntzen Tuesday concluded by stating that Upham and the other superintendents “do not place blame for these problems at the feet of the dedicated staff at OPI,” but rather on Arntzen. They closed with a request that Arntzen “put your efforts towards restoring OPI instead of throwing rocks at local school districts.” 

Speaking with MTFP by phone, Upham explained that the reason for listing the concerns of the superintendents in such detail was to provide Arntzen with a specific set of actions she could take in response. Asked if the letter was related to Miller and Parman’s recent public statements, Upham said he was aware the issues are similar, but that Tuesday’s letter was fueled entirely by what he and other superintendents have experienced firsthand.

“We’re living these concerns,” he said.

This story was updated Dec. 7, 2021, to include post-publication comment from Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen.

latest stories

‘Heart’ of Little Shell

The Little Shell Tribal Health Clinic is slated to open in this city of about 60,000 people on Jan. 31, roughly two years after the tribal nation achieved its long-sought federal recognition. For the first time, Little Shell members will have guaranteed access to health services — and see their culture reflected in the offerings.

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.