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Montana's largest schools say they have 'no confidence' in Superintendent Arntzen

Elsie Arntzen
Posted at 4:14 PM, Dec 07, 2021

HELENA — Montana’s largest schools have sent a letter to Office of Public Instruction(OPI) Superintendent Elsie Arntzen expressing their frustrations and lack of confidence in Arntzen.

The letter dated Dec. 6 was signed by the superintendents of every AA Montana school which represents around 45 percent of the state’s enrolled students, almost 64,000 students in total.

“We write to express our disappointment in your leadership as our state’s chief public education officer,” the letter reads. “Indeed, for the reasons described in this letter, we express no confidence in your performance as Montana’s chief public education officer.”

The letter was signed by the following superintendents: Greg Upham (Billings); Godfrey Saunders (Belgrade); Casey Bertram (Bozeman); Thomas Moore (Great Falls); Rob Watson (Missoula); Judy Jonart (Butte); Micah Hill (Kalispell); and Rex Weltz (Helena).

Specifically, the top educators point to understaffing of critical OPI departments, undermining local school authority, a backlog of unlicensed teachers waiting for OPI approval, a lack of updated content standards, schools losing grants due to OPI missing deadlines and a general lack of support school districts have been receiving during Arntzen’s tenure.

Statement from Elsie Arntzen, Superintendent of Public Instruction, to the AA superintendents:

To the superintendents of Montana’s AA schools, I received your letter this morning and take your concerns and feedback humbly and seriously. At the heart of everything we do, our collective mission is to always put Montana students first. To do that, it’s imperative that we have unity and ongoing support readily available for our students, teachers, administrative staff, and school districts. The OPI, like you, continues to go through the growing pains of pandemic change. We must work together to provide the best opportunities for every student in Montana through respectful actions. The OPI will continue to make necessary changes, revisit our programs, communication, and outreach, and strategically work to ensure that every district has the tools they need from the OPI. While we have multiple touchpoints of communication with school districts and their leadership each month, your letter has made it clear that it’s not enough. I welcome increased mutual dialogue. Your concerns are noted, and I look forward to continuing to make OPI the best office possible while providing necessary support, outreach, and resources to school districts throughout Montana, in support of our student learning.

The superintendents note the OPI turnover rate of around 90 percent has left the agency with absences in critical areas.

“While we understand the mantra of ‘cutting the fat out of government.’ the steps you have taken effectively left no muscle in our state’s education agency. To continue with that metaphor, you are permitting — indeed, encouraging — OPI to bleed to death,” the superintendents wrote.

Schools districts report there is a backlog of applications at OPI for licensed teachers, further worsening the teacher shortage in the state as Montana law forbids districts from paying a teacher after 60 days if they do not have a license on file with the county superintendent.

One school district reports they had been flagged as a “high risk” district due to alleged violations of complicated with specific federal programs OPI monitors. They claim the letter they received identified a different school district. The letter sent by OPI allegedly had a dead link to the appeals process, and after submitting the appeal OPI dropped the determination of “high risk” status.

The AA school districts also voiced their frustrations with Arntzen’s actions that seemed to undermine school districts, or inaccurately represent their intentions.

“To be clear, our concerns are not related to your politics, but rather your leadership (or lack thereof),” noted the superintendents in their letter.

They point to several examples, including Arntzen advocating for changes in an administrative rule that would permit parents to “opt out” of local school policies and Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council meeting in July where Arntzen took issue with the revisions to the Code of Ethics.

The Council approved the change of “Demonstrates an understanding of educational equity and inclusion, and respects human diversity.” At the meeting, Arntzen asked the council to choose their language carefully and brought up the opinion of Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen on Critical Race Theory she had requested.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with OPI Superintendent Arntzen's response to the AA superintendents.