A row of yellow school buses parked in a parking lot.
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The inaugural meeting of Montana’s Community Choice School Commission Monday was marked by the recent withdrawal of two of its members and a brief update on the court order blocking it from conducting its most public-facing duty: approving applications for new charter schools.

Commission Chair Trish Schreiber opened the proceedings with a series of introductions, during which she and four of her fellow appointees discussed their ties to education and what they hope to contribute to the new charter school system established by House Bill 562. But two members were notably absent: Emily Hessler, a Bozeman-area math teacher appointed by Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, and Gary Carlson, a former Bitterroot Valley Community College trustee appointed by state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, both withdrew from the commission last month.

Roughly an hour into Monday’s meeting, Arntzen issued a press release announcing Carlson’s replacement: Laurel-based water treatment technology consultant Jon Rutt. Flowers told Montana Free Press this week he’s still working to identify a new appointee.

After a routine review of the commission’s proposed bylaws, Schreiber gave the floor to a pair of attorneys from Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office for a presentation on the lawsuit challenging HB 562, which was filed by a collection of plaintiffs including the Montana Quality Education Coalition. Thane Johnson and Alwyn Lansing, who represented the state at a September hearing in the litigation, informed the commissioners that they’re currently barred from approving or denying any charter school applications.


Lansing noted that the two were present solely in an informational capacity, not to offer legal advice. But Johnson told the commission that Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Chris Abbott “did some good things” in his order partially blocking HB 562.

“He told us what he was concerned about, and the commission can cure some of those ails with good drafting of your bylaws,” Johnson said. “I would highly encourage maybe seeking some corporate counsel to assist, and then that corporate counsel can call us and we can talk about what the bylaws can do to cure the problems that Judge Abbott noted.”

Johnson also offered to recommend legal counsel to the commission and pointed commissioners to specific pages in the injunction order where Abbott laid out his concerns. Johnson added that he wished he could “be more clear,” but didn’t want to “step over the line” regarding the ongoing litigation.

Commissioner Dee Brown, a former Republican state lawmaker from Hungry Horse, later questioned whether the commission should delay adopting bylaws until it could retain outside counsel. Schreiber encouraged commissioners to proceed with voting on draft bylaws developed by Board of Public Education staff and based on the board’s own governing rules. 

The motion passed unanimously, at which point Schreiber proclaimed, “We now exist.”

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 1, with a third meeting tentatively slated for early December.


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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...