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

A pair of public school board trustees from Missoula and Kalispell emailed a letter to state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen Tuesday refuting recent criticisms of her leadership of the Office of Public Instruction and praising her “steadfast support” for local school boards, parents and teachers.

The letter, penned by Missoula County Public Schools Trustee Michael Gehl and Smith Valley District 89 Trustee Jim Riley, commended Arntzen, a Republican, for aiding parents in “resisting superintendent agendas of forced masking and equity policies” and for bringing parental concerns about critical race theory to the attention of Attorney General Austin Knudsen. The letter, first publicized by the website Missoula County Tyranny, was signed by 21 Republican state lawmakers, five local school board trustees and more than 500 citizens from across Montana. Two in-state parental rights groups — Stand Up Montana and Montana Parents’ Rights in Education — were also listed as signatories.

“You have been stalwart in promoting the rights of parents over the superintendents and their radical agenda,” the letter read. “You are a true pioneer and champion of parental rights and parental choice.”

Gehl and Riley went on to thank Arntzen for “eradicating waste, fraud and abuse from the tired and entrenched OPI bureaucracy,” noting that reform has “indeed caused [staff] turnover” that was “not only long overdue but absolutely necessary.” The letter also criticized a group of superintendents who wrote to Arntzen last week expressing “no confidence” in her performance at OPI, characterizing them as “unelected bureaucrats” who had “gone rogue.” 

“Ultimately, the superintendents targeted you because of the idea that got you elected,” Gehl and Riley wrote Tuesday. “The superintendents hate the idea that parents have the fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of their children. Shame on them.”

Last week’s letter, signed by the superintendents of Montana’s eight largest public school districts, listed several “serious deficiencies” at OPI stemming from Arntzen’s leadership including a backlog of teacher license applications and inadequate staffing in the agency’s accreditation department. The superintendents also criticized Arntzen for attending events they said “vilified public educators.” The letter was followed later in the week by a second condemnation of Arntzen — addressed to “the citizens of Montana” from county school superintendents in Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow, Wheatland and Sweet Grass counties — expressing similar critiques of Arntzen’s leadership and appearances at parental rights rallies. 

Speaking with Montana Free Press Tuesday, Gehl said he was motivated to articulate his support for Arntzen as a direct response to last week’s criticism, which he described as a “blindsided attack” and “completely unprofessional.” One of the signatories to the first letter was Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson, who heads the district Gehl represents. Gehl said he felt Watson’s decision to sign the letter was “totally inappropriate.”

“He is an employee of the school board, of the district, and he’s kind of overstepped his bounds,” Gehl said. 

In separate interviews with MTFP, Gehl and Riley both said they removed their children from public schools this year over concerns about lack of parental involvement in district decisions. They also noted that Arntzen introduced them to one another. Riley further stated that he’s reached out to Arntzen personally “over a dozen times” since he was elected to the board this year, and that the lack of OPI responsiveness claimed by superintendents last week runs counter to his experience.

“She’s been there for me every time,” Riley said. “She’s offered assistance with her staff, she’s offered me tools and resources, and she’s also offered to make introductions … to meet with other school board members around the state.”

Riley and Gehl each reiterated that Arntzen has been a staunch defender of parents and students in Montana, especially regarding school masking policies and educational curricula. Gehl said Arntzen has consolidated her staff and made OPI “more lean and more responsible to the taxpayers.” More important, he added, “Elsie is fighting for the rights of the child, she’s fighting for the rights of the parent to stay involved in their schools and stay involved with their children.”

In an emailed statement to MTFP, Arntzen said Tuesday’s letter of support “reflects a valued slice of Montana.” 

“I reject the current continued negative narrative that seems to be politically driven,” she continued. “My statewide work is to restore hope by embracing and engaging the active role of parents and teachers in our children’s learning. I invite all Montana school leaders to proactively seek collaborative solutions. As the new year opens, I’ll be holding public listening sessions to engage all Montanans on the topic of learning and how to better serve our students. I remain strongly committed to putting Montana students first and inviting all voices — parents, students, and school leaders — to join me in this effort.”

This story was updated Dec. 14, 2021, to include post-publication comment from state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen.

latest stories

Lost, and found

Missoula author Debra Magpie Earling carried the seeds of a story about Sacajewea for years. When she walked away from teaching at the University of Montana, she finally made the mental space to bring it to fruition. The result is this year’s “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” Earling talks about imagination and history with MTFP…

Pistachio brittle: The holiday candy to give as a gift 

Most of us have had peanut brittle, a classic holiday treat. But have you ever swapped out the peanuts for pistachios? It adds a fun flavor and provides a remarkable color contrast with the amber candy. If you have a parent, sibling or friend who’s notoriously hard to buy for, it might be time to…

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...