Montana Office of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen
Office of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen speaks at the Legislature’s Education Interim Budget Subcommittee meeting on Dec. 15, 2021. Credit: Screenshot courtesy of MPAN

Earlier this month, the Montana Office of Public Instruction announced a plan to transition to a new online educator licensing system, with the new system slated to be operational by June 1, 2022. 

The switch has been in the works since the spring legislative session, when state lawmakers directed $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to database modernization efforts at OPI. The agency put out a request this fall for vendors to replace the Montana State Educator Information System, which licensing staff and teachers use to process new educator licenses and renew existing licenses. OPI announced this month that it had awarded the contract to the Tennessee-based firm RANDA Solutions, which has developed similar systems for state education agencies in Tennessee, Colorado and Kentucky.

OPI outlined the transition process last week on the educator licensure page of its website, noting that to accommodate the switch, the current system will “close” to teachers and the public effective Dec. 31. Initially, the agency said it would continue accepting hard-copy paper applications for new licenses and license renewals, but only from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28. OPI altered that plan this week, extending the window for paper applications through May 6.

That alteration resolves one of the immediate concerns the plan had generated among teachers and public school staff in Montana. Mischelle Thomas, human resources specialist at Missoula County Public Schools, told Montana Free Press she nearly “had a heart attack” when she learned about the initial short timeline for paper application processing. One of Thomas’ roles in her district is to help new teachers complete their state licensing and to remind current teachers to renew their licenses, which expire on June 30 every five years.

“I have a really big hiring time coming up this spring for all of these people who maybe have already gotten their license here recently or they’re new graduates in May who are being hired for new positions in the fall,” Thomas said. “That is my real busy, busy time getting my new hires and working with them to get licensed.”

Thomas first heard about the extension for paper applications from MTFP Tuesday, responding, “That’s wonderful. That wasn’t the case as of yesterday.”

“It’s not been a pretty scene for educators these last several years, and this just feels like one more hurdle to new educators hoping to get that licensure and walk in and have a position, especially if they’re graduating here in December.”

Melanie Charlson, field consultant for the Montana Federation of Public Employees

Questions about the transition process and its impact on licensing needs through the first half of 2022 came up in the course of two public meetings this week. On Tuesday, OPI staff formally presented their plan at the agency’s monthly Education Advocates meeting, which are designed to update other agencies and organizations on OPI matters.

During the meeting, Educator Licensure Director Crystal Andrews noted that in addition to OPI continuing to process licensing materials through the spring, the agency has a two-month “grace period” for license renewals. Teachers whose licenses expire June 30, she said, will actually have until Aug. 31 to complete their renewal applications. Andrews added that one big question OPI has been fielding about the transition this month is whether teachers can renew their licenses using the current system prior to it shutting down Dec. 31.

“The answer is no,” Andrews said. “We need to wait until Jan. 1, 2022, simply because that is the year that the license expires, and because we’re on a five-year cycle, if you do it before that year it would not work with the five-year cycle. So we are anticipating a lot of applications in January and we will be ready for that.”

Melanie Charlson, a field consultant for the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents public school teachers and other school staff, told MTFP she stumbled across that very issue this week. Charlson has been a licensed educator in Montana since 1987, and while she no longer teaches, she said she maintains that certification as part of her work coordinating with teachers and other members of the union across the state. With her license set to expire next year, she attempted to get her renewal application in well ahead of the current system’s shutdown date, but the system wouldn’t let her submit the information she’d entered.

“So now I’m in the option of either submitting a paper application or waiting until June 1 when they’re saying the new system is up,” Charlson said.

According to MFPE President Amanda Curtis, Charlson isn’t the only licensed educator in Montana experiencing difficulty and confusion as a result of the transition process.

“We have several members who were in the process of uploading their application for renewal and thought that they at least had until Jan. 1 based on information that had previously been sent out,” Curtis said. “Now they’re in the middle of trying to renew their application and the system is no longer accepting applications, and they’re frustrated by that.”

The conversation during Tuesday’s meeting also briefly touched on the question of staffing at OPI’s licensing department. Staffing levels at OPI have been a particular point of interest among public education advocates this fall in light of high turnover at the agency. In a letter to Arntzen last week, eight district superintendents said they’re dealing with more unlicensed teachers than usual, a situation they attributed to a backlog of applications at OPI and a dearth of staff to process those applications “in a timely manner.” 

Angela McLean, who serves as the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education’s liaison to the K-12 system, asked Tuesday whether OPI plans to increase staffing in its licensure department to deal with the potentially high volume of paperwork in the coming months. Julie Murgel, senior manager of school improvement and innovation, replied that OPI has already done so with the October hire of a third licensure specialist, bringing the department up to four staff. 

“And yes,” Murgel continued, “we will be working very diligently to bring in any temporary staff that might be needed.”

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s Education Interim Budget Subcommittee took up the topic of the licensing system transition several times as well. One specific consideration raised was the potential impact on collection of licensing fees — a source of state education revenue that provides approximately half the budget for the Board of Public Education. The board is a separate state agency that serves as an arbiter in situations where OPI has revoked or denied an educator’s license or is unable to determine whether an applicant meets Montana’s licensing standards.

“I have a really big hiring time coming up this spring for all of these people who maybe have already gotten their license here recently or they’re new graduates in May who are being hired for new positions in the fall. That is my real busy, busy time getting my new hires and working with them to get licensed.”

Mischelle Thomas, human resources specialist at Missoula County Public Schools

Alice Hecht, a fiscal analyst with the Legislative Fiscal Division, told the subcommittee there have been concerns that OPI shutting down the online licensing system for the first half of 2022 would interrupt collection of fees that fund the board’s work. However, she said, OPI has “assured the Board of Public Education that they will be getting their teacher certification fees.”

Later in the meeting, Zam Alidina, OPI’s project manager for the transition, told the subcommittee that the agency is now in the final phase of contract negotiations with RANDA Solutions and anticipates the contract will be signed within the next week. He added that the parties plan to finish transferring data to the new system in April and will conduct testing and training on the new system in April and May.

At both meetings, Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen estimated that OPI will need to process 4,500 license renewals in 2022, as well as an additional 600 applications for new or reinstated licenses. The total amount generated from fees for those licenses and renewals, she added, will be roughly $153,000. She stressed that, historically, about 50% of the applications OPI receives arrive “in a paper format.”

“There seems to be a grave concern as we work on data migration to a new system that somehow people aren’t going to be able to continue to get licenses,” Allen said. “So let me say that again: Currently, 50% of the licenses we receive are in a paper format.”

Despite repeated assurances from OPI that the transition won’t prevent educators or the agency from continuing to license teachers, early confusion about the process continues to fuel reservations about how smoothly Montana’s K-12 education system will navigate the coming months. Charlson is particularly concerned about the volume of applications OPI will have to deal with the moment the new system goes live in June, and about the new batch of teachers from Montana colleges and universities graduating this month who will be looking to get licensed.

“It’s not been a pretty scene for educators these last several years,” Charlson said, “and this just feels like one more hurdle to new educators hoping to get that licensure and walk in and have a position, especially if they’re graduating here in December.”

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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...