Montana AA school superintendents send letter of no confidence to Arntzen, state superintendent

The superintendents of the Montana AA school districts, including Great Falls Public Schools, sent a letter on Dec. 6 to Elsie Arntzen, the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, regarding their “disappointment in your leadership has our state’s chief public education officer” and “we express no confidence in your performance as Montana’s chief public education officer.”

[READ: The full letter to Arntzen]

In their letter, they wrote that local school boards and districts have limited resources and legal obligations, “it is increasingly difficult to provide the constitutionally protected education our children deserve while your office is simultaneously failing to provide the critical assistance we need.”

The letter is signed by the superintendents of Billings Public Schools, Belgrade School District, Bozeman Public Schools, Great Falls Public Schools, Missoula County Public Schools, Butte Public Schools, Kalispell Public Schools and Helena Public Schools.

Those districts include 64,000 students, or nearly 45 percent of the state’s public school enrollment, according to the letter.

In an interview with The Electric, Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore said that the AA superintendents have been frustrated over the last year or so “to the point of saying, look, this is ridiculous, we need leadership out of this office.”

He said that they opted to send the letter to address their issues collectively, “professionally, respectfully and publicly” since Arntzen is only accountable to the voters.

Moore said that the larger districts signed on to the letter, but the issues also impact small districts.

He said that they can’t get calls returned from OPI, or inconsistent communication and that it appears to be an inential and purposeful effort to gut the office of its institutional knowledge.

Moore said that the AA superintendents have been working together for about a month to draft the letter after ongoing concerns for more than a year.

The superintendents wrote that during Arntzen’s tenure, OPI has had a nearly 90 percent turnover rate, leaving vacancies in special education, accreditation and licensure.

“Additionally, your months-long campaign against our districts’ efforts to combat COVID-19 in our schools and communities has undermined the role and responsibilities of our locally elected officials and disrespects the honorable volunteer efforts of hundreds of trustees in our Montana communities,” they wrote. “Your conduct destabilizes the credibility of our local schools, the same ones you are elected to represent and on whose behalf you are supposed to advocate.”

The superintendents wrote that Arntzen has participated in events that “vilified public educators.”

They wrote that Artzen advocated for changes to the Montana administrative rules to allow parents to opt out of local school policies and that “it sends a message that the person elected to represent public education rejects the principal of local control you claim to celebrate and tells parents that our policies are suspect and subject to their personal discretion.”

The superintendents wrote that the turnover at OPI has created deficiencies in the services the office provides and caused disruption in schools statewide.

They wrote that their criticism of Arntzen is not aimed at the staff remaining at OPI and thanked them for their continued service.

The superintendents wrote that their concerns are not related to Arntzen’s politics but her lack of leadership and included examples “of the deficiencies at OPI under your management which believe transcend the political scrums of the day.”

Those include the backlog of applications for teacher licenses that are not being processed, resulting in teachers not being paid as state law prohibits the districts from paying a teacher after working for 60 days if they don’t have a license on file, the superintendents wrote.

They also express concern with the apparent lack of a plan to update the state’s content standards and that OPI is not properly monitoring federal program compliance.

The superintendents wrote that there’s no director of special education at OPI and there has been difficulty in getting technical assistance from OPI. They also raised concern over Arntzen’s opposition to updating the state educators professional code of ethics because she believed it was related to critical race theory, which the superintendents say was not the case.

The superintendents wrote that linking public education to the business and industry is important to build workforce development programs, but “the leadership at OPI has failed to articulate an organized plan for our PK-12 system to participate in a strategic manner for the encouragement of workforce development and education efforts in Montana.”

They raise other issues related to teacher licensing, grants and accreditation.

“Let us be clear once more, we do not place the blame for these problems at the feet of the dedicated staff at OPI, who we know are doing the best we can with that they have been given,” the superintendents wrote. “We expect better of you, the superintendent of public instruction, whos job it is to guide the OPI and manage its resources for the betterment of all of Montana’s public schools. We hope our concerns do not fall on deaf ears.”