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Montana superintendents express 'disappointment' in state's top education official

Elsie Arntzen is the 2020 Republican candidate for superintendent of public instruction.
Superintendent for Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen

The heads of several Montana school districts have written a letter expressing “disappointment” and “no confidence” in state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen.

The letter sent to Arntzen this week on Billings Public Schools letterhead is signed by superintendents representing Montana’s eight AA school districts, including Billings, Bozeman and Helena. Together the superintendents say they represent almost 64,000, or 45%, of the state’s students.

The group says Arntzen’s leadership has caused widespread turnover at the Office of Public Instruction that has “created serious deficiencies” in the services the agency provides. Montana Free Press reported last month OPI has seen a staff turnover rate of 90% over the past five years.

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

The superintendents also say Arntzen has undermined schools’ efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by advocating for a policy that would allow parents to opt out of district rules, such as mask mandates.

Arntzen’s conduct, the group says, “destabilizes the credibility of local schools.”

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

Responding to the letter Tuesday afternoon, Arntzen said in a statement she takes the “concerns and feedback humbly and seriously,” and welcomes increased communication with local school districts.

“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,” she said.

Arntzen has served as superintendent of public instruction since 2017 and is currently in her second term.

Nadya joined Yellowstone Public Radio as news director in October 2021. Before coming to YPR, she spent six years as digital news editor/reporter for the NPR affiliate in Wichita, Kansas, where her work earned several Kansas Association of Broadcasters awards and a regional Edward R. Murrow award for Excellence in Social Media. Originally from Texas, Nadya has lived and worked in Colorado, Illinois, Washington, D.C.; and North Dakota. She lives in Billings with her cat, Dragon, and dog, Trooper, and enjoys hiking, crocheting, and traveling as often as possible.