OPI office public instruction

A legislative proposal now making its way to Gov. Greg Gianforte seeks to place additional restrictions on federal COVID-19 relief fund spending by the Office of Public Instruction, which last week had its authority to procure contracts for third-party goods and services suspended pending corrective action.

During the 2021 session, lawmakers passed a pair of bills earmarking $13.5 million in federal funding for database modernization at OPI — an effort to upgrade the agency’s data systems to more effectively collect and process information related to student achievement, teacher certification and school performance. According to OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary, the agency has spent $5 million on the database modernization effort to date. That includes roughly $1.5 million spent on a new online educator licensing system, which OPI launched last July.

Now, House Bill 367 revisits that ongoing effort by outlining a host of specific goals for OPI’s database modernization in state law and requiring review and approval of the agency’s third-party contracting methods by the Department of Administration (DOA). Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, who helped craft HB 367, told Montana Free Press the proposal is in part designed to “fast-track” the procurement process before the first $8 million round of federal funding expires in September.

“If the Department of Administration is successful in fast-tracking this procurement, we should be able to obligate the funds prior to their expiration in September. But it will take very careful and aggressive management of that procurement,” Bedey said. “I’m optimistic.”

DOA spokesperson Megan Grotzke confirmed this week that the department put out a request for proposals from prospective vendors for the database modernization project on April 7. According to that request, the bidding window closes May 4. Grotzke said DOA could not comment further on an in-progress procurement.

Last week, the DOA suspended OPI’s authority to independently pursue contracts above $10,000 after conducting a compliance review that revealed OPI had failed to adequately retain records, train staff or verify vendor eligibility in its procurement process. OPI was directed to submit a corrective action report to DOA by April 28 detailing how it plans to address the deficiencies. Bedey characterized that development as “unwelcome news” in light of the pressing need to obligate database modernization dollars before they expire.

Prior to the DOA review, lawmakers had already articulated concerns about the pace of OPI’s procurement activities. In a Feb. 24 letter to state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, Bedey and two other leading legislative figures in education — Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, and Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, who chair their respective chambers’ education committees — wrote that it was “evident” from earlier reporting by OPI that the procurement process for database modernization has “stalled.” The trio went on to explain their intent to use HB 367 to “assist the OPI in fast tracking this procurement action,” adding that they were “confident” the bill would be passed into law.


State suspends OPI’s authority to award contracts

A state-conducted review found that Montana’s Office of Public Instruction failed to adequately retain records associated with its contracts for third-party goods and services. Now that contracting authority is suspended pending corrective action.

Bedey reiterated that goal to MTFP this week and expanded on the motivation behind HB 367, which is sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings. Bedey said that based on the state’s poor track record with custom-built data systems, he and other lawmakers preferred that OPI’s database modernization effort utilize off-the-shelf commercial technology secured through a competitive bidding process. HB 367 directs the agency to do exactly that, and allows DOA to review and approve any contracts OPI enters into for such products. 

O’Leary told MTFP the proposal largely duplicates existing law, with the one change being that HB 367 “brings more light to the project as a whole.” He added that with new educator licensing software already in place, OPI’s next project priority is to simplify the accreditation system it uses to collect school quality information from individual districts. 

“It has been Superintendent Arntzen, our [chief information officer], and the data team’s goal to remove archaic rooted data collections to better serve our schools and districts,” O’Leary wrote via email. “One example is the new teacher licensing system, TeachMontana, which streamlined teacher licensing. Teachers can now get licensed in 24 hours compared to the legacy system which took up to several months via paper.”

A related bill, Bedey’s House Bill 949, would have required OPI to eliminate “redundant data collections” and better facilitate data sharing with other state agencies. The bill advanced through the House with strong bipartisan support, but was tabled by the Senate Finance and Claims Committee April 19 on an 11-8 vote. The committee voted unanimously to revive the bill Thursday.

The situation may sound highly technical, but Bedey and others stress that modernizing the collection and flow of educational data in Montana is critical to improving the academic lives of students. Lawmakers this session have attempted to expand on the opportunities already afforded to youth through the state’s K-12 and higher education systems, advancing bills to enhance early childhood literacy, career and technical education and digital learning. However, without robust data on educational pathways and student outcomes, Salomon told MTFP, legislators and educators are “really kind of shooting in the dark.”

“What better data gets us is it helps us understand more quickly when those pathways aren’t paying off or when they aren’t working for students so that we can adjust them.”

Interim Deputy Commissioner for Academic Research and Student Affairs Joe Thiel

“Until you have data, you can say one thing, but you can’t prove,” he said. “Let’s prove that these are working or not working. If they’re working, let’s continue. If they’re not, let’s find an alternative, what we need to do different. Because there’s a lot of innovative ideas, but if they don’t work, it doesn’t do us any good.”

At the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, interim Deputy Commissioner for Academic Research and Student Affairs Joe Thiel can’t stress enough the importance of smooth and secure data-sharing across state agencies. Over the years, he said, Montana’s university system and the Department of Labor and Industry have worked collaboratively to craft reports on graduation trends and workforce needs, helping to inform their efforts in higher education and labor development. Where that work needs improvement, he said, is in creating a way to track academic pathways from kindergarten through college.

Thiel cited Montana’s One-Two-Free program, which allows high school juniors and seniors to pursue up to six college credits tuition-free, as an example of how partnerships with OPI and local schools can help get students closer to either a college degree or a workforce credential that can help them land a job after graduation. The current version of House Bill 2 — the 2023 Legislature’s proposed state budget for the next two years — includes $1.4 million for that program. Thiel said that in addition to shedding light on whether such programs are working for students, more streamlined data sharing can give elected officials and the Montana public rapid insight into how the Legislature’s investments of taxpayer funds are playing out.

“What better data gets us is it helps us understand more quickly when those pathways aren’t paying off or when they aren’t working for students so that we can adjust them,” Thiel said.

HB 367 advanced through the House and Senate with bipartisan support earlier in the session. However, it picked up strong Democratic opposition this month after an amendment was added outlining additional procurement reporting requirements and granting DOA, which is under the oversight of the governor’s office, full authority over any custom-built systems OPI might seek to obtain. During that debate, Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, expressed support for the bill’s original intent but said it didn’t make sense for “the executive to have authority and oversight over an elected official’s department.” HB 367 is now awaiting action from Gianforte.

This story was updated April 27, 2023, to note that Rep. David Bedey’s House Bill 949 was revived by a unanimous vote of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee April 27.

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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...