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Last week, Montanans submitted a veritable avalanche of public comments condemning a series of regulatory changes to school standards proposed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen. The chorus of opposition rose from Whitefish to Corvallis and Red Lodge to Lewistown, and included public school teachers, parents, school administrators, librarians and mental health professionals. Their confusion, frustration, anger and outrage stretched across hundreds of pages of emails and letters, nearly all of them imploring a state review committee to reject Arntzen’s recommendations.

The outcry came in response to three specific proposals: to eliminate a state-mandated ratio for school counselors, to eliminate a similar staggered set of ratios for school librarians, and to eliminate a list of elective classes Montana middle schools are required to offer. If approved by the Board of Public Education, those recommendations would become locked in administrative rules that guide school staffing and budgeting decisions for the next decade. Even members of the Office of Public Instruction’s own task force balked, publicly questioning why Arntzen’s proposals diverged so significantly from the suggestions they’d sent her after months of deliberation.

Arntzen’s answer hinged heavily on the phrase “local control.” She maintained that the question of how best to serve the academic, social and emotional interests of students is best left to local school officials and, by extension, local communities.

“I firmly believe in that local control model,” Arntzen told OPI’s Chapter 55 school quality task force on May 19. “That’s where I, in my theme, where accreditation in school quality should be. Not at the federal level, not at the state level, but by locally elected trustees that know their families, know their community, know their resources and understand their children.”

“I firmly believe in that local control model. That’s where … accreditation in school quality should be. Not at the federal level, not at the state level, but by locally elected trustees that know their families, know their community, know their resources and understand their children.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen

Arntzen elaborated on that point in an emailed response to follow-up questions this week, saying she recognizes the important role that school counselors and librarians play in the state’s public education system. During the 2021-22 school year, she wrote, Montana schools employed roughly 140 more full-time equivalent (FTE) counselors than the existing ratio of one counselor per 400 students would have required statewide — proving, Arntzen said, that schools “are recognizing the mental health needs in students and that mandating a historic ratio is not necessary.” Meanwhile, she wrote, flexibility in meeting requirements is “the number one issue to address in the accreditation rules changes” based on surveys and requests by districts for temporary exemptions from the current ratio.

“The current accreditation standards are outdated by over five decades and are not reflective of a strong focus on educational excellence as an outcome,” Arntzen wrote. “Now is the time for innovation. Removing burdensome regulations will bolster local control, community and parent engagement, and offer the best outcomes for our children. Accountability through flexibility goes to the locally elected trustees.”

Montana schools, particularly those in rural areas, have faced challenges filling a range of critical positions in recent years, a reflection of broader recruitment and retention issues and of difficulties confronted by current and prospective employees in obtaining necessary licensure from a state education agency experiencing significant staff turnover. OPI’s latest detailed accreditation report indicates that during the 2019-20 school year, dozens of schools across Montana deviated from accreditation requirements for misassigning teachers to elective classes they weren’t certified to teach, employing insufficient numbers of librarians and school counselors, and employing counselors and librarians who were not endorsed by the state. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, OPI has allowed schools to maintain their pre-pandemic accreditation status, and reports for the last two school years consequently lack the same detail. But Arntzen said in her email that of Montana’s 839 public schools, 12 are now trying to obtain or extend exemptions from the state librarian ratio and 17 had either insufficient counselor numbers or no counselors at all in 2021-22.

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While it’s true that some schools have had a hard time meeting current regulatory ratios, many educators and mental health professionals argue that’s no reason to do away with them. Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana, told the Chapter 55 school quality task force last week that the ratios were maintained during the last rules review process specifically because they were deemed essential to a quality education. Speaking with Montana Free Press this week, Miller acknowledged that money is always tight in public schools, and that it has been challenging to hire people in certain areas such as counseling and special education. But he’s nonetheless firmly opposed to eliminating the ratios.

“Accreditation standards are there to develop the basics of a quality education system,” Miller said. “Because it’s hard to meet what is the right thing to do isn’t a reason to change the standard.”

For Angela Archuleta, granting schools an “easy out” from having to employ a certain number of librarians doesn’t resolve any critical staff shortages. As president-elect of the Montana Library Association and the librarian at KW-Vina Elementary in Browning, Archuleta believes the proposed change would have the opposite effect, allowing districts to consolidate library services and eliminate librarian positions to reduce expenses and balance tight budgets. Librarians play a pivotal role in the broader support structure of a school, Archuleta said. They curate book collections, promote media literacy, host after-school poetry clubs and work with counselors to identify students who view the library as a safe space. 

Archuleta pointed to the work her colleague Amy Andreas, the librarian at Browning High School, undertook with students to produce a documentary film called “Browning Voices Rising” as a prime example of how far-reaching a librarian’s role can be, and why they need to be deemed essential.

“A very small number of Montana schools have issues with recruiting licensed and endorsed librarians,” Ewbank wrote. “The proposal before [the Chapter 55 negotiated rulemaking committee] creates a ‘solution’ for this small number of affected schools by eliminating staffing ratios for the vast majority of schools that have historically been and are currently in compliance.”

Ann Ewbank, director of Montana State University’s School Library Media Program

“It won the high school student version of the Emmy,” Archuleta said, referring to an award the film received from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2019. “It was number one in the country out of 2,000 entries. So when you have administrators that allow librarians to spread their wings and not control every move, you can do incredible things for your kids.”

Archuleta’s argument was echoed in public comment last week by Ann Ewbank, director of Montana State University’s School Library Media Program. Ewbank noted in her testimony that she worked alongside Arntzen and University of Montana-Western professor Anne Kish in 2018 to examine the availability of licensed and endorsed librarians in Montana and develop strategies for school librarian recruitment. 

“A very small number of Montana schools have issues with recruiting licensed and endorsed librarians,” Ewbank wrote. “The proposal before [the Chapter 55 negotiated rulemaking committee] creates a ‘solution’ for this small number of affected schools by eliminating staffing ratios for the vast majority of schools that have historically been and are currently in compliance. Montana has the lowest librarian to student ratio in the country. We should be proud of this and maintain current staffing ratios.”

Counselors have likewise characterized Arntzen’s recommendations as creating a bigger problem than any they’re intended to resolve. OPI’s task force had initially proposed lowering the existing ratio to one counselor per 300 students, a move that lined up with recommendations by organizations including the Montana School Counselor Association. Jessica Buboltz, a six-year member of the association’s board and a counselor at Missoula’s Hellgate High School, said that having a ratio locked into state rules establishes a “bare minimum” that schools and communities must meet in supporting student mental health.

“Our concern with the elimination of that ratio is it might look like school counselors are non-required staff at that point in time,” Buboltz said. “And sometimes when budgets have to be cut, unfortunately some of those nonessential staff are the ones that get cut.”

The timing of Arntzen’s ratio removal proposal is particularly alarming for Kirsten Murray, chair of the University of Montana’s Department of Counseling, in light of the state Legislature’s changes to other in-school mental health services last year. As of February, schools participating in the Comprehensive School and Community Treatment program are required to make matching payments for Medicaid reimbursements in cash from non-federal sources — a situation many public school advocates have feared will strain local budgets and prompt schools to exit the program. As a result, Murray said, school counselors may be the only professionals left to meet student needs that have been heightened by two years of pandemic life.

“School counselors are more important than ever,” she continued. “Pulling them is very scary to me. Very, very scary.”

“Our concern with the elimination of that ratio is it might look like school counselors are non-required staff at that point in time. And sometimes when budgets have to be cut, unfortunately some of those nonessential staff are the ones that get cut.”

Jessica Buboltz, counselor, Hellgate High School in Missoula

Arntzen did note via email that her recommendations require all school systems — the groupings of one or more individual schools that make up Montana’s 496 school districts — to establish a shared counseling program. The proposed changes also allow systems to contract those services out, or establish multi-district or community agreements to fulfill the requirement. But Murray and her colleague Emily Sallee, an assistant professor in UM’s counseling department, argue that those flexibilities fail to account for the broader responsibilities school counselors have in the public education system. In addition to helping students with social and emotional issues, counselors also provide academic and career guidance, such as assisting students with navigating graduation requirements and completing college applications. And they do so, Murray said, for as many as 400 students under the current ratio. Sallee added that those specific skills can’t be replicated by partnerships or agreements with community providers.

“Those are all aspects that are not part of the training for clinically based mental health providers,” Sallee said. “So by contracting with [private providers] in that capacity and replacing school counselors, schools and students are really at a detriment without the rest of what a school counselor does.”

Murray and Sallee agreed their primary fear is that Arntzen’s recommendations will result in a reduction of critical mental health resources for Montana’s children. The landscape they envision if those proposals are adopted is bleak, characterized by increases in violence and depression and declines in student achievement — the very issues the two argue counselors are intentionally and strategically positioned to help address.

“We’re the third-highest suicide rate for adolescents in the whole country, and that number will go up,” Sallee said. “I won’t be surprised to see us be second or first. And I think that’s the clearest thing I can point to, that we will experience more deaths in youth than ever before because they don’t have access to a mental health professional at their school. And that’s really terrifying to me.”

In the wake of Tuesday’s school shooting in Texas — during which an 18-year-old Uvalde County resident killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in what the Texas Tribune declared the deadliest school shooting in the state’s history — Sallee followed up via email to point out that Texas is among the 28 states in the country that do not have mandated school counselor ratios. According to the American School Counselor Association, Texas had one counselor for every 392 students during the 2020-21 school year.

Sallee recognizes that some Montana schools have struggled to recruit and retain counselors. But neither she nor Murray believe the solution lies in removing a statewide ratio. Murray’s department, in partnership with OPI and Montana State University, is closing out its third year of participation in a five-year federal grant designed to improve counselor preparation, recruitment and retention. Since 2020, the initiative has placed two separate cohorts of 10 college students in counseling internships at rural Montana schools, and Murray said the results so far have been promising. She added it’s currently unclear whether the U.S. Department of Education will continue offering funding after the current grant expires, but she and her partners “have lots of motivation” to extend their participation.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge Murray and Sallee see in resolving school counselor recruitment and retention issues is funding. Low pay for those positions coupled with the increasing cost of housing and other living expenses raises significant hurdles both for districts looking to hire and for graduates looking to remain in the state. Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, echoed that point more broadly. Her organization represents public school employees across the state, and Curtis said Montana’s teacher preparation programs turn out enough educators to cover nearly all of the state’s instructional needs. Graduates who want to stay and work in Montana, she continued, are instead drawn to neighboring states by higher wages.

“To pretend like we need to gut the entire education system in Montana and somehow a flood of people will come and work here for a pittance and have no place to live is just crazy,” Curtis said of Arntzen’s proposed accreditation changes.

Curtis sees the recommendations as part of a pattern of changes that threaten to erode public education standards in Montana. She remains critical of recent revisions to teacher licensing requirements proposed by Arntzen and adopted by the Board of Public Education that make it easier to obtain state certification. Now, Curtis added, the state is looking to relax its standards governing school accountability, putting school administrators in the difficult position of having to weigh the importance of middle school music, drama, arts and career and technical education electives against their budgets and accreditation status.

“I really think that this is a slippery slope toward another, second lawsuit [against] the state for failing to provide free, quality public education,” Curtis said, referring to a landmark 2003 lawsuit that resulted in the Montana Supreme Court declaring the Legislature’s funding of public education unconstitutionally inadequate. 

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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...