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Education

State schools superintendent says she's 'humbled' by recent criticism, ready to move forward

  Montana Superintendent of Public Schools Elsie Arntzen
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Montana Superintendent of Public Schools Elsie Arntzen

Montana’s school superintendent is facing criticism from administrators of the state’s largest public school districts who say they’re "disappointed" in her leadership.

Elsie Arntzen’s detractors include superintendents representing all eight of the state’s AA districts. They signed a letter last week detailing what they say is a chronic lack of administrative support from Arntzen’s Office of Public Instruction. They also complain her partisan politics undermine the work of local educators.

But Arntzen, now serving her second term as Montana’s OPI chief, also has the endorsement from enthusiastic supporters, including Missoula School Trustee Mike Gehl, who this week co-authored a letter in support of Arntzen. That letter, titled a "Vote-of-Confidence," racked up hundreds of signatures, including those of more than 20 Republican state lawmakers.

"She’s doing a great job," said Missoula School Trustee Mike Gehl. "We support her. We’ve got her back.”

Arntzen says while she appreciates that support, she’s simultaneously humbled by the letter doubting her leadership.

"The issues are challenging," she said. "I'm understanding there's frustration out there, and if I'm going to be the one that's going to be receiving it, then I need to act in my role. I am humbled by what was said and moving forward is where I want to be."

Arntzen spoke with Montana Public Radio's Edward O'Brien about the recent criticism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Edward O'Brien: You have said and penned a letter saying you take these concerns humbly and seriously, but I think I've also heard you strike a bit of a defiant tone that it was ultimately a politically motivated gesture. And these are two very different sentiments, it seems to me. Am I off base?

Elsie Arntzen: I believe that some of the statements may have been made politically. If we're going to seek solutions in the political environment that we're at right now, we must remove some of the negativity that politics can shade into the conversation.

What was a specific example or two of how politics were injected in there?

If they would have reached to me, the words that were in that letter could have been clarified. If they had reached out to me, I could have gotten our experts and really drilled down to what those concerns were because of the eight different regions that these superintendents reflect in our school systems across our state. If there is something that is unified across, then we need to know, but it never reached to my attention. If there was a challenge in licensing across those eight superintendents, I would have known.

And so I use the word politics and I use the word blindsiding because if they would have sought a solution, they would have picked up the phone. They would have personally emailed me immediately, rather than cataloging complaints in an effort to diminish a role of an elected official.

High turnover in your office was high on their list of concerns and a recurring theme. I've seen it reported it's something close to like a 90% turnover rate, 180 in the past five years.

Yeah, I would, I would assume that would be the case. I know that we have had about 30 a year that have retired, and our age of our existing employees hovers a little bit more than 50 at this point. I believe that the system moved from an old No Child Left Behind system, and I was given a new federal act of Every Student Succeed. And that in itself may have made some individuals depart the agency. Some have left and are working in different parts of state government.

In my role right now I know that I am focused on children. I am focused on less at the state level, when it comes to being top-heavy, more streamlined processes with data modernization, making sure that we have systems implemented that allow that local control model to flourish. And I know change is difficult.

Montana School Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, they say despite your support for local control, you too often campaign against local district COVID-19 policies. You want to give parents the option to opt out of local school programs, and they say that "destabilizes the credibility of local schools."

I believe in community schools. I believe in local control. That means that discussion needs to happen in the boardroom. If there are policies that inhibit a parent voice or a taxpayer voice or anyone — a teacher's voice — then I believe those policies need to be reviewed. I'm not telling or sharing or asking what policies that might be. I am saying we need to make sure that we work together.

Parents aren't going backward. They're moving forward. They have seen the curriculum. They have seen the opportunity and they would like to be a partner and our board rooms are going to be that community place of discussion.

Have you considered now dialing back what I think some see as your rhetorical style? Or I wonder if that's exactly what your supporters, the people who voted you into office. want to see more of?

I believe that I was elected by a majority of Montanans to have an education system that focuses on students. My discussion on parents is where I believe that parents are the first teacher. We cannot have a robust, moving-forward educational system if we do not have parental involvement. I do not believe that's rhetoric, that is a passion and it's also something that I believe in that other Montanans also believe in.

Final question. So, tell us about this past week. Have you been in direct touch with any of these frustrated superintendents? I hear you've been in touch with the Billings school superintendent. If that's the case, tell us about the conversations.

It's very positive, moving forward and moving on issues rather than moving backward. I've shared with them that I'll meet individually with their staff or all together as a AA caucus. Be more than happy to visit with them. They have my email, they have my cell number, they have the email and the phone number at the general office here at the OPI. And I'm rolling up my sleeves and we're going to open this new year with a great school year.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio