From her perch high in the stands of Stevensville Elementary School’s gymnasium Tuesday night, Moriah Cochran spoke critically about the state of teacher pay in the Bitterroot Valley. Kids like hers need quality teachers who can afford to live in the area, she said. And, she added, those teachers shouldn’t be expected to dip into their own pockets for classroom essentials such as markers and snacks. 

“Our teachers need to be well paid and compensated,” Cochran said before promptly pivoting to another educational suggestion: special needs programming in particular must be “funded way more than it is.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen listened as Cochran concluded her statements, which received resounding applause from the roughly 50 people seated around her. For Arntzen, it was the second of four community forums she’d recently announced to gather feedback from state lawmakers, parents and teachers ahead of the 2023 Legislature. The night before, she and a small group of staff from the Office of Public Instruction held a similar event in Kalispell.

Over the course of the evening in Stevensville, residents from throughout the valley peppered the head of Montana’s public education system with observations, recommendations and concerns. Arntzen weighed in regularly, clarifying the scope of her office’s authority and reiterating a now-familiar message about the power of local control. Early on, she invited the two local lawmakers in attendance — Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, and Rep. Wayne Rusk, R-Corvallis — to share a few education-centric statements, and later encouraged them to “remember families, remember parental rights” when they enter the coming session with a Republican supermajority.

“Should it matter when your kid walks into a classroom, whether you’re a parent or whether you are a teacher or a school administrator, if they have an R or a D on their backpack?” Arntzen asked. “They don’t.”

The topics echoing off the walls of the gym cut across a wide swath of K-12 education. One speaker lauded Arntzen’s efforts to bolster civics education in the state, and queried her on the best strategies to ensure that curriculum is fully embraced at the district level. Stevensville resident Von Dailey told Arntzen about his experiences with high school exchange students from Italy and Brazil — both of whom, he said, came to the valley expecting a challenging American education and found themselves already far ahead of their peers academically.

“Our kids are getting straight As but score poorly on the SAT, on the ACT,” Daily said. “I’m confused, what are we teaching and why are Italy and Brazil, for sure, ahead of us?”

The more voices spoke out, the more concerns landed at Arntzen’s feet. Stevensville School Board member Tony Hudson urged her to direct OPI to distribute material to newly elected school board trustees regarding their legal responsibilities. The shortage of substitute teachers in the Bitterroot is “awful,” one teacher said, and educators are “begged not to take a sick day.” Another speaker asked Arntzen if she would support a statewide salary schedule for teachers to ensure adequate pay; Arntzen motioned to the pair of lawmakers in the room, noting that the question was in “your world.” 

At turns, Arntzen responded to comments by stepping into the role of educator. Regarding curricula, she said, the state sets standards in certain areas such as math and reading, but how that material is delivered falls to local trustees. On the issue of federal COVID-19 relief funding for schools, Arntzen explained that OPI distributes that money, but it’s up to local districts to decide how to use it. She reminded the room several times that those funds must be expended by a certain date or they’ll no longer be available.

“These moneys are important. Invest them,” Arntzen said. “I’ve had to send money back. Why would I send money back to the federal government? Trustees, spend the money. Spend the money. It does no good to send it back. Invest it in your children. Invest it in your teachers and in your building.”

She added that those investment opportunities range widely, from HVAC systems to tutors and curricular material. In response to a comment about security tied to the rash of “swatting” incidents that threw several Montana schools into lockdown last week, Arntzen added one more suggestion to the pile: beefing up the number of school resource officers, a position held by local law enforcement officers charged with maintaining a safe learning environment. According to Arntzen, there are currently 826 K-12 schools in Montana, and only 51 SROs.

The evening turned briefly tense as Stevensville residents Alan and Terri Lackey voiced their concerns about lessons involving sexual identity and climate change. Alan claimed that the manner in which those topics are being introduced to students has fueled “confusion,” and Terri questioned whether LGBTQ clubs should be allowed in public schools. Arntzen attempted to address their statements by clarifying that state standards for sex education do not include any lessons below sixth grade, and that sexual orientation and gender identity “aren’t even in the standards.” Terri Lackey countered that she’d arrived at the forum believing Arntzen had control over such issues, but felt Arntzen was “passing the buck” to local school officials. Lackey said it seems that taxpayers “have no say in the curriculum.” If she had her choice, she added, “this school would get nothing.”

“Parents are the first teacher,” Arntzen said. “This discussion of sexual education and sexualizing our children needs to be a discussion at home. Our public school system is about educating our children in math, in reading, in science, in arts, in languages.”

Later, Stevensville Elementary School music teacher Robert Prince came down from the stands, took up the microphone and tried to “assuage some of the fears” on that subject. In his nearly 15 years of teaching, he said, there have been “absolutely zero” conversations about gender identity among his colleagues at the primary level.

“I would just like you to know that none of that is taking place here or any other school I know of. And if you’d like to talk to me, I’m happy to talk to you about that,” Prince said.

Prince then switched gears, mentioning that Montana consistently ranks among the bottom tier nationwide for teacher pay, and starting teacher pay in particular. After Arntzen concluded the evening by assuring attendees that “we listened, we heard,” Prince told Montana Free Press he was thankful the evening was “more civil” than he’d expected, adding, “I’m glad the topics stayed mostly on policy issues.”

OPI’s next community forum will take place Thursday at 6:30 p.m. on the Montana State University-Billings campus. Next Monday, Arntzen will travel to Great Falls for the agency’s fourth and final event at 4:30 p.m. at Great Falls College.

This story was updated Dec. 16, 2022, to correct the spelling of Stevensville resident Von Dailey’s name.

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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...