Last night, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elsie Arntzen, hosted a forum at Heritage Hall at Great Falls College MSU and it was standing room only. Several Great Falls legislators, school board members, and school district superintendents attended the event.
Why such impressive attendance?
In the days before the event, Great Falls Rising had sent multiple emails with a forwarded message from Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore. In the message, Moore stated “none of the superintendents have received personal invitations to attend” the four events that were scheduled by the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) and he urged people to attend the meeting. To be honest, there has been a lot of broken trust between the OPI and Montana’s public schools. A year ago, the superintendent of every AA school in Montana signed a letter of no confidence in the OPI due to several failings during Superintendent Arntzen’s tenure. A motivation to rally around our schools might have packed the room.
What was the event’s purpose?
Ironically for a meeting about “bridging” communication, communication of the meeting’s purpose was poor. After the first 45 minutes of the forum, one audience member took the mic and asked the question on many of our minds. “What is the purpose of this meeting?”
Elsie Arntzen took back the mic and gifted us with an incoherent, rambling statement. I wrote, “WTF” in my notebook because her answer made zero sense.
The questioning audience member tried to ask her question again, but Elsie either didn’t want to provide the real reason and/or was unable to articulate a response. Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore stepped in and briefly explained that he understood the purpose of the meeting was to have a conversation with the newly elected legislators in our area. To engage our parents, school leaders, and legislators in discussing issues of mutual interest before the upcoming legislative session. It was nice of Moore to try to hypothesize why Arntzen decided to host these forums.
Okay, Superintendent Moore’s answer made some sense – but – an astute audience member asked a great follow-up question. Why were these meetings only scheduled in the “more red” cities of Kalispell, Great Falls, Billings and Stevensville? Why weren’t forums scheduled in Helena, Bozeman, Butte or Missoula? On brand, Superintendent Arntzen’s response was a confusing paragraph of buzzwords. While her answer made little sense, she implied meetings would be held in the bluer cities in the future.
If Superintendent Arntzen was expecting a venue to spew anti-public school and “parental choice” gibberish, she sure didn’t get it. When newly elected Daniel Emrich (SD-11) stood up and said that if you want to raise teachers’ salaries, you need to cut administrators’ – the crowd booed! A teacher spoke up and said that we need to keep public dollars in public schools and loud applause broke out.
What did other Republican legislators have to say?
Besides Emrich, a couple other Republican legislators in the room spoke and had tense interactions with GFPS Superintendent Moore. Jeremy Trebas (SD-13) pressed Moore about accountability for student achievement. Moore responded with a graph visually demonstrating all of the extra demands we have put on the shoulders of our educators over the past decades. Scot Kerns (HD-23) complained that communication between the schools and the public needed to be a two-way street. Moore responded by saying there were procedures in place to request information, fill out a form to release salary information. Kerns loudly interjected that he had filled out the form. Moore responded that other legislators have made an effort to go to the schools and work with administrators and teachers directly. It seemed as if he was calling out Kerns’ accusations of non-transparency as being in bad faith.
Tough subjects were raised. I’m glad our legislators were there to hear them.
People brought up the fact that taxpayers are tapped out for increased property taxes. Multiple audience members mentioned that our students needed more mental health and prevention services, not less. That subject was raised in a direct response to Arntzen’s proposed elimination of mandated school counselor ratios.
Based on the mood in the room, I felt hopeful. Because the word had gotten out, there was a strong, pro-public school sentiment in the room. We didn’t have the attacks on our schools seen at the Kalispell and Stevensville forums. People were speaking out and paying attention. If we want improved student achievement, we need to invest in our children. We can’t do that by asking more and more of individual taxpayers. The state needs to allocate monies properly to fund our PUBLIC schools. An audience member asked, “Who is going to want to teach in five years with these attacks on our public schools?” You heard us, Great Falls legislators. SUPPORT OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS.