Dear readers,

Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 27-31. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP reporters’ look back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Alex Sakariassen’s turn.

Reporting-wise, January 2021 kicked off in an unexpected place for me. I’d spent a good chunk of the preceding 15 years focused on politics and environmental issues, and then suddenly there I was, MTFP’s’ newly minted education reporter, standing on the steps of the state Capitol as Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen took the oath of office to enter her second term. I didn’t realize in that moment just how much time I’d spend talking to and writing about Arntzen over the next 12 months.

It was certainly a good time to be shifting into the new beat. The 2021 session of the state Legislature tackled a range of proposals impacting the K-12 and higher-ed communities. Some bills were highly contentious, such as the campus carry law that was recently struck down by the courts. Others enjoyed broad bipartisan support, including a suite of measures designed to bolster career and technical education in Montana. On top of all that, lawmakers and the Office of Public Instruction debated how best to allocate millions in federal COVID-19 relief funds for public schools.

But one particular thread continued to pop up in my reporting throughout 2021 — the state of OPI itself. I’d first heard rumblings about staff turnover at the agency as a freelancer covering Arntzen’s 2020 re-election bid against Democratic challenger Melissa Romano. When I began looking into educator licensing this spring for a fellowship project funded by The Hechinger Report, I heard from rural teachers and superintendents who blamed licensing delays partly on deficiencies at OPI. Similar challenges were noted during a routine review of licensing regulations this summer.

Following that thread culminated in November with arguably my biggest story of the year: an investigation revealing a nearly 90% turnover rate at OPI since Arntzen took office in 2017. More coverage ensued as officials in the state’s largest school districts condemned Arntzen’s leadership and supporters rushed to defend her as a champion of parental rights.

“Termination Report” sheds light on turnover at OPI

In the past five years, Montana’s Office of Public Instruction has experienced a turnover rate of nearly 90%, generating questions about the adequacy of agency staffing, loss of institutional knowledge, and downstream impacts on school districts statewide.

That may have been my top story in 2021, but it’s far from the only memorable one. I spent considerable time exploring how Trump’s “Big Lie” has fueled Montana’s election integrity debate. Vaccine skeptics spoke to me at length about their work pushing the state’s new vaccine discrimination law. I dug into how out-of-state think tanks influenced the 67th Legislature. And, in a nice bit of journalistic circularity, I recently revisited the subject of my very first article for MTFP in 2019: disagreement over the launch date for Montana’s new statewide election management system.

Montana hasn’t seen the last of those debates, and just as I plan to continue talking to Arntzen about her agency’s challenges and successes in the new year, I fully intend to be there when a new year’s stories about vaccination, elections and outside influence on politics shake loose.

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...