OPI office public instruction

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While the filing deadline for candidates in the 2024 election is still more than half a year away, the race to replace termed-out Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is already filling up. One Democrat and two Republicans have announced bids so far, ensuring that public education will continue to play a prominent role in Montana’s political discourse next year.

During last weekend’s Montana Democratic Party officers’ convention in Butte, state Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, unveiled her campaign to head OPI. A longtime educator and policy adviser to former Gov. Steve Bullock, O’Brien has emerged as a prime player in the Legislature’s debates over school policy. She served on the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee through the past two sessions and carried bills to increase early childhood education, bolster teacher retention and redefine how Montana measures student performance. 

“I’m looking forward to continuing to travel the state and learn more from Montana students, families, and teachers,” O’Brien said in a written statement to Montana Free Press. “We’re going to build on the good work of Montana’s public schools, to grow a stronger economy. I’m in this because I know we can do better.”

Across the aisle, two more veterans from the upper echelons of the public school system are set to square off on the Republican primary ballot next June. Townsend School District Superintendent Susie Hedalen, who also serves as vice chair of the state Board of Public Education, teed off her run last week with a candidate ad and a string of early campaign stops in eastern Montana. Her website already boasts endorsements from top Republicans Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen, as well as a smattering of Republican lawmakers.

Hedalen’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to requests for an interview, but in her announcement ad, the candidate recognized the “unprecedented challenges” facing Montana teachers and vowed to give them “the tools they need to succeed.”

Hedalen will face fellow Republican and current Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen — Arntzen’s longest-lasting right hand through her two terms in office and a regular agency presence at joint policy deliberations with the board. Allen got her start in school administration in the Augusta School District and served in a string of district superintendent positions in Montana and Arizona before joining OPI. Speaking with MTFP this week, Allen highlighted a host of motivations for seeking the office, including a need to improve student safety by fostering a better sense of self and opportunity.

“It’s evident in Montana that we have got students that need to be able to gain identity,” Allen said. “We continue to lead the nation per capita in suicide rates amongst youth. I think it’s time we tackle the elements that are in the margins. You can’t educate kids that have disengaged and ultimately take their own lives.”

Allen and Hedalen have both emphasized the importance of respecting the role and values of families in education — a signal that the conservative-leaning parental rights movement will likely enjoy continued political influence as the 2024 elections approach. Arntzen’s successor will also automatically gain a seat on the Montana State Library Commission, which this month voted to sever ties with the American Library Association after conservative media outlets publicized a now-deleted tweet from the ALA’s president describing herself as a “Marxist lesbian.” Arntzen voted in favor of the withdrawal.

Arntzen, for her part, is one of several Republican politicians who could make a bid for the state’s eastern U.S. House district if incumbent Matt Rosendale files to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Jon Tester — a step he’s telegraphed, but has yet to formally take. 

After Lee newspapers’ State News Bureau questioned the use of an OPI logo at the Montana GOP’s officers’ convention last month, a political strategist for Arntzen, Sam Rubino, said the outgoing superintendent “would take a very serious look at throwing her name in the ring” if the seat opens. Arntzen, a former Republican state lawmaker, ran for Montana’s at-large U.S. House seat in 2014, but lost in the primary to Ryan Zinke, who now represents the state’s western district in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Randy Pinocci, a Republican member of the Public Service Commission, has also said he’d run for the eastern district House seat if Rosendale decides to challenge Tester.

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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...

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.