Front facade of the Montana State Capitol building, showcasing its neoclassical architecture with ornate detailing, large pillars, and the word 'MONTANA' engraved above the entrance, set against a cloudy sky.
The Capitol building in Helena, photographed Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have approved a proposed change from Gov. Greg Gianforte to a bill establishing professional qualifications for career coaches in Montana’s K-12 public school system, striking a certification requirement that the governor believed would “create red tape.”

House Bill 548, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, initially passed the Legislature with near-unanimous approval in both chambers. But as Anderson explained last week when the proposal reappeared before the House, Gianforte had identified a “duplication” in the certification of career coaches that granted licensing authority to both the Office of Public Instruction and the Department of Labor and Industry.

“The governor notices this [and] struck out ‘certified by OPI’ to eliminate that red tape and the duplication,” Anderson said.

Gianforte’s change elicited scant opposition and no discussion in either chamber. According to OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen was supportive of the amendment as well, saying it will “strengthen the bill” and give rural communities “more flexibility” in employing individuals who can advise students about career-based opportunities.

Expanding the use of career coaches in the state has emerged in recent months as a priority for Arntzen. During an event in the Capitol Rotunda April 12, she announced the pending hire at OPI of 10 career coaches assigned to distinct regions throughout the state, part of a new program Arntzen has dubbed “Montana Ready.” The positions are in line with a draft report compiled for the agency earlier this year by Alambama-based contractor Channel Enterprises, which offered a host of observations and recommendations on how Montana’s public school system could improve its offerings for career and technical education. The report suggested OPI use state or federal grant dollars to design a regional career coach system to help serve students — particularly those in rural schools — and develop a long-term plan to expand such a program using state funding.

“Career coaches will provide students assistance and training on how to best access all components of their chosen career pathway to help them have a successful future and explain the possible course options of their school career,” the report read. “Career coaching can truly be a major game changer for all students and provide the connection to business and industry to improve Montana economic and workforce development efforts.”

Arntzen told Montana Free Press last month that the Montana Ready program and associated career coach positions will initially be funded using federal COVID-19 relief dollars — also known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds — earmarked to address the loss of learning during the pandemic. She acknowledged that OPI will need to request ongoing funding from the Legislature in 2025 to continue the effort.

Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for Gianforte’s office, told MTFP via email last week that the Office of Budget and Program Planning estimates each career coach position at OPI will cost $74,400 per year for salary and benefits. Price added that OPI requested approval from the budget office in February 2023 for 10 temporary full-time equivalent positions to be used as career coaches and funded with federal relief dollars, but the budget office “disapproved the request.”

“OBPP continues to disapprove of paying for additional ongoing positions, who would have ongoing functions, using a one-time funding source, in this case ESSER funds,” Price wrote in a follow-up email this week.

Asked Monday for clarity whether that disapproval meant OPI was barred from using the funds to support the new hires, O’Leary replied that “the use of ESSER funds for the career coach position was never disallowed by OBPP.”

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The report from Channel Enterprises included several other observations regarding career and technical education programs in Montana, among them a need to better align data from public schools and the state’s colleges and universities to meet workforce needs. That’s among the stated goals for supporters of two pieces of legislation this session: House Bill 949, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, which would direct OPI to eliminate “redundant data collections” and improve data-sharing with other agencies; and House Bill 367, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, which would grant the Department of Administration greater oversight of OPI’s use of ESSER funds for modernizing its data systems. The House approved Senate amendments to HB 949 on a 98-0 vote Tuesday. HB 367 was transmitted to Gianforte for his consideration last week.

The report also stressed the importance of involving Career and Technical Student Organizations, or CTSOs, in the implementation and delivery of career-based instruction to K-12 students. House Bill 382, sponsored by Rep. Greg Oblander, R-Billings, would direct $350,000 in state funds toward new performance grants for Montana’s seven CTSOs, which each receive $79,000 per year in base funding from the state. HB 382 originally asked for $1.5 million in additional CTSO funding, but that amount was reduced through two separate amendments in the House and the Senate. The bill has passed the Legislature and is now on its way to the governor’s desk.

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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...