Schools across the nation are facing a teacher shortage and Montana is feeling the squeeze as well. Recent laws passed by Montana’s supermajority-Republican legislature seek to divert tax funding to private charter schools, and wage stagnation makes retaining teachers and faculty an ongoing challenge. Now Great Falls Public Schools face another hurdle- the extremely low wages paid to their office staff. Anyone working a full time job deserves livable wages, and that’s what GFPS office staff are now demanding.
Read the full statement from the Great Falls Association of Office Personnel Union here:
‘Fighting for a fair contract,’ Great Falls Public Schools Office Staff Head to Mediation
(GREAT FALLS, MONT.) – The Great Falls Association of Office Personnel, a union of school office staff affiliated with the Montana Federation of Public Employees, has requested the assistance of a state mediator in ongoing contract negotiations. Sixty-four office staff members in Great Falls Public Schools have worked without a contract since their previous agreement expired June 30th.
Requesting a state mediator from the Department of Labor and Industry comes in response to a breakdown in contract negotiations between the school district and office staff. Offers from the district–most recently an additional $0.64 an hour–fail to honor the integral role office staff play supporting and protecting students, families, and faculty throughout the district. This most recent offer also fails to recognize and repair a decades-old pay scale that has been made inadequate by the increased cost-of-living in Great Falls. The first mediation is scheduled for Thursday, October 26th.
“Currently, when we start working for the district, we make between $13.59 and $16.73,” said Association of Office Personnel President Daneen Pate. “After 25 years of service to this district, the most we can earn is between $16.42 and $19.53 an hour. These wages are no longer livable, they don’t keep pace with other school districts, and they’re not fair market value. We’re fighting for a fair contract because we love the students in our care and the district shouldn’t force us to choose between them and putting food on our families’ tables.”
Office staff are often the faces of their schools. They’re the first to greet students, caring for them when they’re sick or acting out. Parents and families interact with office staff daily, relying on them for timely updates and assistance. Office staff also help with scheduling, record keeping, finances, school activities, and attendance. Despite fulfilling their important roles with commitment and skill, the school district’s most recent offer would mean that, on average, office staff would make only $30,261 per contract year. Their counterparts across the state average $41,744 annually. The average Great Falls administrator makes $107,564 per year.
An average entry level administrative assistant at Malmstrom’s Delta Solutions makes between $44,000 and $56,000. New administrative assistants at Montana Highway Patrol and Montana’s average fast-food worker earn over $42,000 in a 2,080-hour year of work.
In the lead up to mediation on October 26th, the Association of Office Personnel have shown solidarity by wearing buttons reading ‘What Would You Do Without Us? Worth more than 64¢’ and black shirts every Wednesday. Members, with the support of other district faculty and staff, will continue these activities, and, if necessary, ramp them up as they continue to bargain for a livable wage.
“We are hopeful the mediation results in a fair agreement, but if it doesn’t then our office staff members are ready to stand up for themselves, their families, and Great Falls’ students,” said MFPE President Amanda Curtis. “Our entire statewide union will have their backs.”
When we wrote our first Republican Police Blotter post we didn’t think it would become a regular thing but. . . .
Belgrade school board trustee, Brian Heck has been arrested in a human trafficking and child exploitation sting organized by law enforcement in Gallatin County. He has been charged with patronizing a prostitute. Heck has resigned his position. Of course School Board trustee positions are nonpartisan. But during his campaign, the Belgrade News reported that Heck said, “I will have no tolerance for progressive social agendas being pushed on children in the classroom” and that he was a big “parents’ rights” advocate. He also received a $300 contribution from the local Republican Party during his school board race. He only had one other contributor. We’re going out on a limb here and saying he is a Republican. Correct us if we are wrong.
In other news, on July 12th Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen pled guilty to causing a rear end collision in Helena Municipal Court. The accident occurred on June 12. She was cited for following too close. Arntzen initially pled not guilty but changed her plea. Someone must have told her that rear ending another person’s vehicle is almost always the fault of the person in the following car. She was fined $100.
Speaking of Arntzen’s driving skills, in June of last year she pled no contest to passing a school bus with its stop arm extended. She said she was unaware she had done it. The video provided by the bus driver clinched the investigation. Ironic that, in her official capacity, she oversees the School bus safety program for the state.
This week the Great Falls School Board voted 4-3 to accept the election results for the May 2, 2023 school board election. Typically accepting the canvass- which means accepting the results of the election- is a perfunctory measure. The Election Administrator provides the election results and the total cost of the election, and the School Board simply accepts the results. However, the days when Cascade County’s election results can be relied on are long past.
Before the vote, Superintendent Tom Moore and Brian Patrick provided an overview of the canvass, including highlighting several significant errors. Many of these errors were first brought to light by the Election Protection Committee. Moore discovered further errors during the private meeting in which Sandra Merchant provided the canvass results. Moore noted that voters in Districts 19C and 21B were seemingly not mailed their absentee ballots whatsoever. Merchant seemingly ignored over 400 registered absentee voters in these districts. The District was also provided different voting totals. The Election Administrator first provided results, but the County Attorney’s Office then provided different results, with a difference of 75 votes. Although Patrick asked the County Attorney’s office to explain this difference, the District did not receive a response before Monday night’s School Board meeting.
The District also provided a list of 17 questions to Merchant which were vital to the discussion of the Canvass. Merchant failed to respond to a number of those questions. Moore intimated that after asking the County Attorney’s office about why Merchant had not provided these answers, the County Attorney stated that they could not MAKE Merchant do anything but could only offer advice and recommendations.
Another tremendous concern is the cost of the election itself. Despite requesting a mail election in their original agreement, Merchant refused to honor this request. Rather, Merchant opted for a more complicated and likely more expensive hybrid election, which included a poll election. Poll elections require renting a space and paying additional costs of staffing that election. Merchant originally provided the District an estimated cost of around $41,000. It appears this estimate was based off a previous mail election, which would not accurately reflect the costs of a poll election. The District requested the bill for the May 2, 2023 election, but as of Monday, Merchant had not provided this.
Accepting the results of the canvass also obligates the School District to pay the Election Administrator for the cost of the election- a cost that is still unknown. Trustees asked questions about the obligations of the District should Merchant’s bill exceed the original estimate. Trustee Bill Bronson indicated that he would refuse to pay any excess costs and would be willing to take the matter to court if necessary.
The Trustees were presented with various options as to how to proceed. If the Trustees opted not to accept the canvass, they could pursue a separate legal route which would allow the Board to appoint 3 members for a one-year term, and then put all candidates on the ballot again during the next election cycle. Not accepting the canvas would also mean the Board would not have to agree to the yet-undisclosed total cost.
After lengthy discussion, including public commentary and an examination of legal recourse, a motion was made to accept the results of the canvass. The votes were as follows:
Kim Skornogoski- No
Marlee Sunchild- No
Amie Thompson- No
Bill Bronson- Yes
Gordon Johnson- Yes
Mark Finnicum- Yes
Paige Turoski- Yes
Skornogoski, Sunchild, and Thompson all indicated they were uncomfortable accepting results when they recognized the process was flawed. In his comments, Bronson explained that his understanding of the law influenced his vote. As the results showed a decisive victory for the winners, he believes case precedent would show that the flaws in the election were not enough to overturn the results. Turoski acknowledged the incompetence shown by Merchant in her running of the election, but still opted to accept the results as the two losing candidates did not voice any objections.
Now voters must await Merchant’s final bill. When will it be provided? No one seems quite sure. Merchant, who failed to even attend a recent court hearing regarding her work, did not attend the School Board meeting either. Merchant has refused to speak to the media (save a far-right radio station, which she has graced with her presence). She fails to respond to emails and telephone calls, and apparently even the County Attorney’s office has seemingly given up on getting her to perform her job duties. If Merchant will bill the School District for the excessive costs of the poll election remains to be seen. Regardless, those additional costs will come straight out of our pockets. It is our tax money that pays for all of this, including her $70,000 annual salary. When Merchant chooses to run the least economically feasible type of election, our community suffers the costs- both literal, ethical, and legal.
Usually you don’t see national dark money groups showing up in local school elections in Montana, but it has now happened here in the Great Falls School Election. Early this week voters in Great Falls received a text message from Free to Learn Action, a national right-wing organization.
The Freedom to Learn Action text is poorly researched and violates Montana campaign law. Specifically, there is no disclaimer identifying who paid for the piece as required in Montana statutes. It also identifies the “party registration” of each of the candidates for school board. The problem is that voters do not register by party in Montana, and the school board election is a non-partisan race. Put simply, there is no way Freedom to Learn Action knows the party affiliation of the candidates. Finally, the piece identifies candidate Tony Rosalles as a Democrat. While Montana doesn’t register by party, Tony Rosalles is the head of the local Libertarian Party. It is pretty unlikely that he considers himself a Democrat.
ProPublica reports that Freedom to Learn is a national right-wing group which says that its mission is to “advocate for classrooms independent of political influence” (https://freetolearn.org/mission). The organization is headed up by Allison Liegh Marre, who has a long history of right-wing activism. She worked on Republican Scott Walker’s 2014 run for Governor in Wisconsin. She worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee and was the national press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. She also worked for the Air Force during the Trump Administration. (https://projects.propublica.org/trump-town/staffers/allison-leigh-marre)
You might be wondering why a national right-wing group would be showing up in a Great Falls Montana school board election. Aside from the fact that the entire right-wing power structure hates public schools. Well. . . probably because Montana’s US Senate race is going to be the biggest race in the US Senate in 2024. National groups want to establish a “Montana track record” to attract more money for their coffers. We note with interest that US Senator Steve Daines is now the Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where Marre used to be the National Press Secretary. It’s going to be a long election season.
The E-City Beat opinion piece entitled “Mob Rule Dominates Great Falls Public Education Meeting” (1/4/2023) grabbed my attention. Its author Jeni Dodd identified herself as a “creative, multi-faceted, multi-talented, knowledge junkie. Liberty, integrity, truth, and critical thinking are among my most important precepts.”
Having attended that meeting, I found her article title completely confounding. So, I read the first sentence.
“Amid a chorus of boos and shout-downs, there were a few brave souls that dare (sic) to express opinions unpopular to the summoned mob.”
Wow! We must have attended different meetings. This “mob” consisted of an engaged, but largely respectful group of parents, current and former teachers, administrators, and legislators. Ms. Dodd followed that introductory grenade by stating that the above sentence was “my overall impression of the recent meeting … .”
Was she dreaming?
Ms. Dodd continued by “blowing” the line of communication that led to almost 200 people attending the meeting:
“… Moore originated the communication by sending an email to Great Falls Rising, who then forwarded it to the Cascade County Democrat Central Committee, who sent it via Mail Chimp to their mailing list.”
I sincerely doubt that only Great Falls Rising forwarded the communication to the Cascade County Democrat Central Committee. There were at least two other sources sharing communication about the meeting, each of which had CCDCC members as part of their email lists. The CCDCC could have gotten the information from any number of sources.
Ms. Dodd blustered on, “Moore approached me after the event, and I was surprised when he ask (sic) me if he had answered my question.”
The question wasn’t hers; Rep. Krebs demanded that Sup. Moore defend how he had come to hear about the meeting. Ms. Dodd later followed up by pointing her hypothetical finger at Sup. Moore as she rudely asserted, “You didn’t answer his question!!!!”
“I also let him know I had seen the message he sent to his so-called ‘partners’ and asked, ‘Who were these partners?’”
“He answered, ‘I sent an email to Great Falls Chamber, Yes to Education and the education advocacy group Great Falls Rising.’”
“By the way, his words, not mine, categorizing Great Falls Rising as an ‘education advocacy group.’ I would beg to differ.”
“I don’t know about you, but when someone won’t give a straight yes or no answer and instead, deflects questions and redirects to another topic, it makes me uneasy and suspicious. I subsequently told Moore that this wasn’t the first time I’d seen him evade and avoid answering questions.”
Really? I think Sup. Moore directly answered Ms. Dodd’s question. Maybe she should ask the real question: why does the MT OPI not want the educators it is meant to support attending meetings it organizes?
Here’s my impression of the Anrtzen’s “faux” public education meeting.
Sup. Arntzen organized the forum to attract a specific minority of Montana residents in each of the towns she visited. She did this by selectively sending meeting notices through certain sources to get the audience she wanted to interact with – Republican legislators so that they could use the meetings as a way to spread disinformation and raise popular support for for passing anti-public education legislation. (She held a fifth “forum” on January 2nd at the Capitol Building attended by her selected audience and, I would guess to her dismay, Occupy Montana Leg attendees there to express their opinions during the opening session of the Legislature. They watched as the meeting that she had tried to orchestrate in Great Falls actually played out in Helena (as it had in the first three meetings she produced in other Montana cities.) They said wildly conspiratal things: that public schools are “confusing” students by moving “far, far Left”, and that school administrator positions are a waste of taxpayer money.
Sup. Arntzen’s selection of the first four Montana cities for these “productions” (Kalispell, Stevensville, Billings, and Great Falls) is illustrative of Sup. Arntzen’s true purposes. She did not list Bozeman, Missoula, Helena, or Butte. What’s the difference? The four cities that got selectively-sent notices were Republican and the four which did not were Democrat.
The “chorus of booss” referenced by Ms. Dodd was directed at Sen. Emrich’s (R) suggestion that the inadequacy of funding for education could be addressed by reducing the funding directed toward school administrators. The “shout-downs” were an automatic shock response by attendees to the suggestion that too much funding was going to administrators and that reducing administrator funding could begin to adequately address the education shortfall. It was also a result of the obvious, insidious attempt to pit teachers against administrators by Sen. Emrich and other Arntzen “production” partners including Rep. Kerns. But Sup. Arntzen et al totally misjudged their audience. At one point, she asked the attendees who support public schools to raise their hands. With the exception of these legislators, nearly the entire room did raise their hands. Sup. Arntzen had an agenda she wanted to communicate, but she was forced to read the room. Regrettably for her, educators and parents were allowed to voice their very real concerns about education in Cascade and surrounding counties.
Ms. Dodd concluded her fallacy-filled confabulation with this:
“A picture emerged from my attendance at this forum and it isn’t a pretty one— the picture that far too many of the summoned bunch that attended don’t want parents and taxpayers to have a voice with OPI and legislators in a public forum— at least not a voice that they can’t control.”
Ms. Dodd, in the above quote, got it backwards. In fact, the Great Falls “bunch” was a voice that they (Sup. Arntzen et al) could NOT control.
Below is a summary of the suggestions coming from many of the meeting’s “uncontrollable” attendees:
- We must pay our educators a salary commensurate with the responsibility they bear for our most valuable resource, our children.
- We must bookend traditional K-12 education with
(a) public preschools taught by certified teachers in all school systems and
(b) direct connections to post-secondary training/education leading to jobs.
3. We must address the mental health/substance-abuse issues that threaten our children.
4. We must fully fund the woefully underfunded federal special education mandate
Readers of this commentary, please look carefully if you see/ any legislators referencing parent/public comment as a basis for an education bill. If the reference differs from the four suggestions listed above, they may have originated from a deceptively choreographed series of meetings like Sup. Arntzen’s that produced a predetermined result supporting the game plan of the MT Republican party to destroy Montana’s vitally important public education system.
Finally, Ms. Dodd failed in her self-proclaimed devotion to liberty, integrity, truth, and critical thinking. In fact, her opinion piece is filled with untruth, emotionally-based conclusions, and attempts to manipulate its readers.
Integrity? Sadly, Ms. Dodd, on that criteria you earned an “F”!
On January 2, 2023, the 68th legislative session made its debut swearing in the newest batch of Montana legislators. This also marked the first time that one party formed a supermajority since Montana’s constitution was adopted 50 years ago. Speaking of which, this Republican supermajority is champing at the bit to introduce a slew of amendments to the constitution. They’ve proposed 54 such amendments already. Some of the topics they want to legislate on are: the way elections are handled, the way judges are selected, redistricting rules (read: gerrymandering) amendments defining gender, banning abortions, and enshrining school choice and a parental bill of rights.Their plans are clear. They want Big Government to control Montanan’s personal lives and public institutions. Confusingly, Sen Steve Fitzpatrick has proposed a constitutional amendment on proposing constitutional amendments. If Republicans have their way, Montana’s constitution will be unrecognizable before the session is through.
Concerned about Republican’s extremist agenda, a group of activists from Great Falls organized an event – Occupy MT Leg. We were joined by concerned citizens from around the state. Why occupy space on the first day of the session? To let these legislators know that we will hold them accountable for everything they do during this session. Our sizeable group from Great Falls, Helena, Belgrade, Conrad, and more, first gathered in the rotunda to protest Superintendent of Public School’s Elsie Artnzen, who had brought in a slate of far-right speakers (an abuse of the office) to mount yet another unfounded attack on our public school teachers and administrators. Artnzen’s “event” was small, disorganized, and met with Boo’s from protestors in the crowd.
We then moved to the Old Supreme Court Chamber, where the public reception was to be held for the newly-sworn lawmakers. Cakes were there, ready to be served, doubtless alongside much back-slapping and self-congratulations. We had aimed to speak with our legislators and make sure they know what we expect of them, but it turns out that they didn’t want to face the public. Not to be deterred, we gathered around the balcony of the rotunda, displayed our signs, and filled the space. We are here, and we will not be ignored.
Finally, following the swearing-in, we marched around the capitol building. The group was comprised of people from different generations, different parts of Montana, with different advocacy issues. But we experienced a solidarity that we believe we share with a large portion of Montanans. Far-right extremism is not representative of most of us, and this “super majority” does not represent us. They are not some aristocracy, and we are not some peasantry. We can and will raise our voice when they eat their cake and throw us the crumbs. We’ll be keeping a close eye on their votes, and the bills they sponsor. With this supermajority, they feel emboldened to show their true colors. And we are committed to rejecting fascist ideology wherever we see it.
Join us, it’s going to be a wild ride!
Get involved here: