The Montana Office of Public Instruction offered a preview Monday of several policy priorities for the 2023 Legislature, including an effort to secure ongoing maintenance funding for the agency’s new online educator licensing system.

Speaking before the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen started by stressing the importance of lawmakers committing to fully funding Montana’s K-12 education system through 2025 to the tune of more than $101 million. Separate from that base funding, Arntzen said, OPI will also seek legislative support for roughly $333,000 to repair or replace audiology equipment used to provide hearing tests for public school students.

The priority that sparked the most attention from committee members was a formal request by Arntzen to draft legislation redirecting state special revenue to her agency from the Board of Public Education. The revenue in question is generated from educator licensing fees, and currently accounts for roughly 40% of the operating budget for the board’s activities as well as the activities of an affiliated advisory council focused on educator training, certification and ethics. Arntzen is asking that the funds, which typically total $160,000 a year, be allocated to OPI to pay for ongoing maintenance of the agency’s new online educator licensing system.

“We are looking at the longevity and sustainability of these systems because you don’t want to just buy a brand new Tesla off the lot and not have electricity to be able to run it,” Artnzen told lawmakers in response to questions about the proposal.

The development and launch of the new licensing system was paid for with federal COVID-19 relief funds allocated to OPI by the Legislature last year. Asked by Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, whether the agency factored ongoing maintenance into its budgeting for the new system, Arntzen responded that the federal dollars expire in 2024, resulting in the need to find a more permanent funding source. She also noted that the Legislature will have to consider tapping the state’s General Fund regardless — either to pay for the maintenance or, if the redirect is approved, to backfill the Board of Education’s coffers.

Arntzen’s desire to redirect the fee-generated funds first came up before an interim budget committee earlier this summer, and later fueled a back-and-forth between Arntzen and members of the Board of Public Education over the latter’s stance on the matter. The board’s executive director, McCall Flynn, informed lawmakers Monday that the board has not staked out a position on Arntzen’s proposal, but said it does plan to pursue legislation of its own to resolve issues with the way the funds are distributed that have resulted in negative audit findings for the board in recent years.

“We’ve listened to OPI, we do understand their position, we’ve raised our own concerns, and we’re still evaluating what the best path forward for the board is,” Flynn said.

The committee denied Arntzen’s request to draft the legislation on a 3-7 vote.

Arntzen offered scant details about a fourth legislative priority Monday, saying it’s “still cooking.” But she did say that OPI, in concert with the Department of Public Health and Human Services, is looking into a proposal to provide state funding for educational services provided to students in residential mental health facilities licensed by the state.

The committee also reviewed a list of its own policy recommendations Monday. One bill draft aims to expand the state’s truancy laws to require parents of all students age 5 to 18 to ensure their children attend school. The proposal triggered public pushback from the Montana Coalition of Home Educators and several other homeschool advocates, who claimed such a change would restrict parents’ ability to withdraw their children from public school and teach them at home. The Montana Federation of Public Employees weighed in as well, with public policy director Diane Fladmo saying that while student attendance deserves lawmakers’ attention, she is unsure whether the proposed draft has been “vetted enough.”

That draft failed to advance on a committee vote. 

Another proposal, advanced unanimously by the committee, set the stage for what could become a tense debate in the 2023 session: a prohibition on school districts operating schools outside their boundaries. OPI data analyst Paul Taylor spoke to the draft’s origins, telling lawmakers the agency has recently run into questions involving the level of funding going to attendance centers — in essence, satellite public schools that are tied to a nearby district — that the agency is hoping to resolve in a “strategic way.” Public comment on the draft was critical, with several people testifying that the proposed prohibition would exclusively impact Montana’s Hutterite colonies as the sole utilizers of such school facilities, and asking lawmakers to allow those colonies to work directly with OPI to remedy any issues. 

“I will ask you that, if we don’t need a law to address this, maybe a new law is not the appropriate solution to this problem,” said Mike Talia, an attorney representing several colonies. “The colonies would certainly ask for the Office of Public Instruction to have the opportunity to work through this and to get these accounting issues cleaned up.”

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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...