Community discusses education with Arntzen, legislators

Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen held a community forum Dec. 19 in Heritage Hall at Great Falls College MSU.

The event didn’t appear to have a structured format or focus and Arntzen said they were there to share their voices as a community.

Arntzen introduced the eight local legislators in attendance, as well as area school leaders and school board members.

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In her opening remarks, she floated the idea of moving school board elections from the statutorily set May ballot to the general November ballot.

Arntzen said she’d be asking lawmakers for education funding early in the legislative session and that the state still had some federal COVID relief money available.

She asked school leaders to spend their federal COVID relief funds so that they don’t lose it and have to return it to the federal government.

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The Great Falls Public Schools district has been using COVID funds to make capital improvements, incentivize substitute teachers and address budget shortfalls. But that one-time money won’t last long and has specific regulations, GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore told the room.

Arntzen told the packed auditorium that the majority of education funding goes toward salaries and asked Moore what he’d like to see in this year’s state-level school funding.

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Moore said that the district appreciated the flexibility the Legislature gave districts in the last session as they’re dealing with increasing costs and economic uncertainty.

Moore said there’s a budget surplus now because of those federal COVID relief funds, but they won’t last and the concern is “the cliff that’s impending.”

Arntzen said that after a 2005 lawsuit against the state over school funding, the law changed to require a review of the school funding structure every 10 years. She said that she was on that committee in 2015 and they “didn’t get very far.” She said the next review would be in 2025.

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The most basic explanation is that the state provides 80 percent of a district’s operating budget and leaves it up to the local communities to fund the other 20 percent through local voter approved levies.

Arntzen said that 51 cents of every tax dollar paid in the state goes to public education.

Arntzen said that the state has a projected deficit of 800 teachers next year and said the state isn’t growing their own and asked if the state should train teachers in the social and emotional aspects as they are often grappling with those issues as students are dealing with trauma and more social and emotional issues without support systems.

OPI is the state agency that sets licensing standards and requirements for teachers.

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One local parent said that the state should create a program in which parents can get together and decide how school budgets are spent.

She said those decisions are made by school boards.

In Great Falls, the school budget office holds multiple public forums to explain the budget process and solicit feedback every year.

The school board is made up of local residents, many of whom are parents, former educators or those interested in local education. The board has a budget committee that also has regular public meetings about the budget process and solicits feedback.

As of Dec. 20, only two sitting GFPS board members had filed for re-election.

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The parent suggested that the state should give districts funds above their general budgets to fund “innovation.”

Arntzen suggested that there’s marijuana tax revenue that could be used.

The Legislature set specific distribution of those tax revenues and did not include education.

One man suggested that the state increase the beer tax to fund student substance abuse prevention. The state did specify marijuana tax funds for addiction recovery and treatment.

Daniel Emrich, who recently defeated Tom Jacobson for State Senate District 11, said that the state has a hard time getting teachers, but doesn’t have a hard time getting administrators.

A majority of the room grumbled and some said that wasn’t true.

Another man suggested that if GFPS cut one administrator, there’d be more money for teachers.

Nichole Pieper, the superintendent in Power, said she also serves as the principal and transportation director.

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She said that she fills in as a substitute when needed, handles individual education plans, and more.

“I never know what my day is going to have,” Pieper said. “That’s the job of all administrators in the state. We do what is needed. We are right in there. Because that’s what our kids deserve and what our kids need.”

Rep. Scot Kerns said he’s asked GFPS for information about salaries and proficiencies and hadn’t received it.

Moore said there’s a form to request documents and that the district has open meetings.

“You have not come to a school board meeting” to ask those questions of get information, Moore said.

Paige Turoksi, who was elected to the GFPS school board this year, said they don’t see a lot of parents at their meetings unless it’s a controversial issue.

“No one shows up to actually ask and hear from us,” Turoski said. “We’re there. Everything’s there.”

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Noelle Johnson, a former GFPS teacher, said that the structure of school board meetings doesn’t allow for dialogue between parents and officials.

The meetings are governed by state open meeting laws, but Moore told The Electric after the forum that he was setting up several other public forums in the coming months on specific topics to allow for more dialogue.

One of those is set for Feb. 2 at the University of Providence on youth wellness and they’ll also participate in No More Violence Week with a forum on school safety.

The budget forums are in the spring.

Two people asked Arntzen what the point of the forum was and why area superintendents weren’t invited.

Celia Blewett asked why OPI was so disorganized it couldn’t communicate with superintendents.

In response, Arntzen said, “I’m glad you’re here. One person can’t fix it. I can’t fix it,” and that the event was for community dialogue, and handed the microphone to Moore.

Moore said they need community discussion and to tell legislators their priorities and needs.

He said “let’s not worry about when I was contacted.”

Earlier in the month, Moore had caught wind that OPI was organizing forums statewide, and was called by GFCMSU when OPI reserved a room for the event.

Moore told The Electric after the event that Arntzen and her office didn’t contact him directly, but an email had gone to a contact for a regional group of superintendents. He said that once he heard about it, he called Arntzen and asked why not a phone call or request for help organizing. He said she apologized.

Moore sent an email to education “advocates” to the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, Great Falls Development Authority, Kids Education Yes, and Great Falls Rising, a progressive political action group, which pushed his email out about not being initially invited.

Moore said it hadn’t been his intention to cause a stir over the invitation but to encourage people to attend the event.

During the forum, he said they have more students facing homelessness, hunger, mental health crisis and that the real problem is “the erosion of our families.”

He said schools are having to deal with things they weren’t designed or equipped to handle in those arenas, while focusing on student achievement as a top priority.