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My job title at Montana Free Press is editor. That means I help develop story ideas, correct copy, communicate with readers, and do a hundred other tasks aimed at producing and promoting news.    

But one of the biggest and best parts of the job is managing a staff of reporters.

The biggest story out of state government this week has me trying to imagine receiving an unmistakable expression of no confidence from those reporters. I actually don’t have to imagine very hard. I once worked in a newsroom where a new editor was hired into the role after a previous editor’s departure. The new editor failed to connect with his reporters, and the reporters revolted. We sent a letter to our publisher that read very much like the letter the superintendents of Montana’s largest school districts sent to Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen this week. Our new editor ended up fired. 

We wouldn’t have delivered that letter if we hadn’t thought it was necessary, but ever since then I’ve had an uncomfortably heightened awareness that someday that could be me. 

Aside from her anodyne public response, I have no way of knowing what sort of self-reflection the superintendents’ letter might have sparked in Arntzen. To me it would have been devastating, but I don’t have the personality to even run for public office, so I wouldn’t presume to understand her position. 

Reader response to the story has been — surprise? — divided. There’s a constituency that’s always viewed Arntzen as a poorly disguised stalking horse for their worst fears about privatized education and anti-intellectualism, and in the news of the superintendents’ revolt they found confirmation of that view. There is also a constituency — one that helped elect Arntzen twice — that sees the same revolt as evidence of a failing education system they elected her to upend. 

Which constituency is correct? Answering that question isn’t this editor’s job. 

What I can tell you is that while the superintendents’ letter to Arntzen was undoubtedly newsworthy, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise to Montana Free Press readers. 

About a year ago I had the happy opportunity to hire Alex Sakariassen to cover the education beat, with the goal of giving readers valuable reporting on a topic we thought deserved more media attention than it was getting.    

Alex’s coverage of the Office of Public Instruction started before he even came on full-time, with a profile of the November 2020 race for state superintendent that drew the line between what incumbent Arntzen promised as bureaucratic fat-cutting and what detractors saw as strangling OPI into dysfunction. 

Alex followed up with a fact-check on allegations of a staff exodus at OPI during Arntzen’s first term. Finding out if that was true took a significant amount of time and legwork to dig up the agency’s “Termination Report” before Alex could break the news last month that, in fact, the agency’s turnover rate during Arntzen’s tenure is running near 90%.

Between those stories, Alex reported the most comprehensive report you’ll find on how inefficiencies in OPI’s teacher-licensing processes are making life hard for rural Montana schools, the agency’s effort to address statewide teacher shortages, Arntzen’s forays into Montana’s COVID and culture battles and, again, staffing problems at OPI.    

I’m not prepared to say — at least not with any degree of certainty — where the Elsie Arntzen story is going next. But I can tell you with full confidence that Alex will be there. 

It’s not cheap to keep professionals like Alex on the beat. I hope you’ll consider joining the 2,300 Montana Free Press members who make it possible to provide reporting that helps keep Montanans in the know. Between now and the end of the year, all new donations to MTFP will be doubled thanks to the support of NewsMatch and a generous group of donors.

Alex and I and everyone else at Montana Free Press deeply appreciate your confidence. 

—Brad Tyer, editor

Viewshed

Credit: Bridger Bowl Ski Area

A slow start to winter — the National Weather Service’s Great Falls office reports the mean November 2021 temperature was up 8 degrees from normal, and the monthly snowfall total was down 5.5 inches — means winter snow sports like skiing have also been slow to get off the ground. And many tourism-reliant communities could use the boost after 2020’s numbers for value added to the state economy by snow sports fell by about 25% compared to 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Red Lodge Mountain, Big Sky Resort, Great Divide and Whitefish Mountain Resort are the only ski areas in the state currently open for the season. Lookout Pass, Lost Trail, Maverick Mountain, Bridger Bowl, Showdown, Teton Pass and Bear Paw are tentatively planning to open the latter half of next week, and Discovery, Blacktail and Snowbowl haven’t forecast opening days yet.

In a Dec. 7 Facebook post, Bridger Bowl wrote, “Opening Day is delayed due to Old Man Winter’s non-compliance. Even though a fresh blanket of snow has fallen, there is a lack of solid coverage. We will reassess at the beginning of next week in hopes for a December 17th opening.”

Verbatim

“We have to acknowledge our predecessors.”

— The Jump owner Lynn Shanahan, on opening a gastropub in the Gallatin Gateway building that formerly housed the longtime Buffalo Jump bar and strip club. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported that the location will also feature a drive-thru coffee shop, a deli, and a wood-fired pizzeria.

By the Numbers

Number of coronavirus Omicron variant test specimens sequenced in Montana as of Dec. 9. According to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Dec. 8 COVID briefing, 99% of the specimens sequenced in Montana continue to be of the Delta variant, a more transmissible version of the novel coronavirus. 

Scientists continue to study Omicron, labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, and public health officials continue to recommend vaccination as the most effective protection from COVID-19.

Hot Potato

On Wednesday night, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester broke from most of his Democratic colleagues to side with Republicans on a resolution opposing President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for private-sector workers. In a statement, Tester attributed the decision to concerns he’d heard from Montana business owners and framed his stance as a defense of jobs and small businesses from “burdensome regulations.”

The resolution was largely symbolic, as Biden is likely to meet any congressional action challenging the mandate with a veto. And Tester was quick to clarify that his position was in no way meant as a critique of the vaccine, which he urged “every eligible Montanan” to receive “as soon as possible.” But in voting to oppose the mandate, the Senate became the latest government entity to question Biden’s strategy for combating the pandemic.

The specific rule the Senate targeted had already been temporarily blocked nationwide by a federal appellate court in Missouri last month. After that, the dominoes fell in quick succession. By the beginning of December, a federal judge in Louisiana had issued a temporary injunction against Biden’s vaccine mandate for health care workers. A week later, another federal judge in Georgia blocked a mandate for federal contractors.

While Tester weighed in on the mandates this week, the elected Montana official who most comprehensively ties the string of mandate condemnations together is Attorney General Austin Knudsen. He joined the state to the lawsuits in Louisiana and Missouri, as well as to separate litigation paralleling the Georgia challenge that resulted in the latest injunction. He also took his opposition to the vaccine requirement for health care workers on the road, appearing at a protest against the Sidney Health Center’s plans to comply with the mandate.

With each new development, Knudsen has repeated his denouncement of vaccine requirements as a gross overreach by the White House. It’s a refrain that’s won him accolades from supporters in Montana. Corinne Hammond, a registered nurse in Billings who reached out to Montana Free Press via email this week, wrote that the Louisiana injunction felt like “a ton of bricks had been lifted from my shoulders.” She credited Knudsen directly for standing against an “attack on our personal liberties,” adding that it’s a fight she’s proudly joining.

“While I’m optimistic that federal judges will ultimately strike down the mandates,” Hammond wrote, “I will not stop fighting for my rights and the rights of my colleagues across the state.”

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers: Sometimes reporters have nerdy professional crushes on the work that other reporters do. That happens to me whenever Katheryn Houghton of Kaiser Health News writes a story I wish I had written! This week, she dug into how Montana’s richest nonprofit hospitals are falling short on charitable giving, a metric that helps guarantee their tax-exempt status. It’s very worth your time. 

Eric Dietrich: Mike Bostock, the programmer behind some of the tools I turn to most often for data reporting projects, offers some fascinating insight in this geeky blog post about how he’s trying to build data viz tools that are more accessible to people who don’t have heavy-duty coding chops.

Amanda Eggert: This Washington Post story about a study highlighting the possibility of a snowless future in the West feels all the more pressing given Montana’s currently lackluster snowpack and conversations about updating Montana’s Drought Management Plan. 
Alex Sakariassen: I tend to digest a lot of education-related news these days, but it’s still hard to shake my past life as an environmental reporter. The Guardian scratched that itch for me last weekend with a story chronicling the life of OR-93, a gray wolf that captivated biologists with a trek deep into California before dying recently from a vehicular strike.