Credit: Illustration by Melissa McFarlin

Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 26-30. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP editors’ and reporters’ looks back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Alex Sakariassen’s turn.

Some interviews just stick with you. Maybe the source has that special blend of expertise and charisma that draws you fully into their world. Or they frame a familiar issue in a way that never occurred to you before, opening up a whole new line of questioning. Sometimes they simply open up, exposing their emotions to a relative stranger without provocation or shame.

Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman explains the reasoning for a delay in reporting initial election results Tuesday evening. Credit: Alex Sakariassen/MTFP

I’ve fielded more of that last type than usual in 2022. Democracy’s taken a bit of a beating this year as misinformation about voter fraud and election insecurity runs rampant, and few Montanans have felt the impact more directly than local election officials. They’ve had their integrity repeatedly questioned by members of a small but vocal movement that’s channeled its own deeply held concerns into open records requests, public accusations of wrongdoing and even borderline intimidation. In one case, the situation was enough to reduce an official I spoke with to tears.

Payne Center University of Montana
The Payne Family Native American Center has become a hub for Indigenous student assistance and culture at the University of Montana in recent years. In an effort to further improve service for those students, UM launched a new dashboard this fall designed to streamline financial aid data. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

Until this year, it never occurred to me that “election administration” could be its own distinct beat in a newsroom. Now I’m seriously considering adding it to my business card. The phrase doesn’t just reflect the increased focus on election skepticism in my coverage. I’ve also dedicated considerable digital ink to continued coverage of the election laws that were central to Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s policy agenda in the 2021 Legislature. The resulting litigation culminated in a two-week trial, a state judge’s declaration that those laws were unconstitutional, and a recently filed appeal by Jacobsen to the Montana Supreme Court.

Last month, the Montana University System announced its first statewide student enrollment increase in nearly a decade. The uptick was driven by several factors including non-resident student gains and a continued upward trend in graduate enrollment at the University of Montana in Missoula. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

All that accounts for maybe half of my work at Montana Free Press this year. Technically speaking, I’m MTFP’s education reporter, and that’s a beat that didn’t really exist as a dedicated job in statewide media before. Part of carving out a new area of focused coverage is getting up to speed on the internal workings of a given system, be it K-12 or higher ed, and bringing readers along for the ride. That means a lot of writing about the basics, such as regulatory revisions, new data collection initiatives, educator recruitment challenges and enrollment trends. It also means responding when one of those systems loses an influential advocate.

But as with election procedures, education in Montana has experienced its share of hot-button debates recently. The rise of the self-styled parental rights movement led to unusually crowded contests for school board seats across the state in May. After the campaign dust settled, culture-war issues continued to influence the tenor of state and local conversations about how public schools operate. At the same time, educators expressed heightened fears about the sustainability of mental health programs for students, and about a proposal from Superintendent Elsie Arntzen that critics argued would undermine dedicated in-school counseling services.

Cheryl Thompson
Cheryl Tusken, director of the Montana chapter of Parents’ Rights in Education, photographed at her home in Bozeman. Credit: Jason Thompson / MTFP

In short, 2022 was a whirlwind on both the electoral and education fronts. Judging from the list of bill draft requests submitted by lawmakers so far, many of those issues will spill over into the 2023 Legislature. I expect to see a lot more emotion on display in the coming months, both in public testimony and in those more intimate moments between reporter and source, when the walls come down and the true weight of an issue becomes unshakably clear.

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...