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Leaders of the state’s eight largest school districts criticized the state’s highest public education official in a letter sent Tuesday.

In the letter, superintendents from districts that included Bozeman, Belgrade and Billings said Superintendent Elsie Arntzen has failed to provide the support and resources schools need to succeed.

“We write to express our disappointment in your leadership as our state’s chief public education officer. Indeed, for the reasons described in this letter, we express no confidence in your performance as Montana’s chief public education officer,” the letter stated.

The districts represented in the letter include Bozeman School District, Billings Public Schools, Belgrade School District, Great Falls Public Schools, Missoula County Public Schools, Butte Public Schools, Helena Public Schools and Kalispell Public Schools.

The letter in just over five pages outlines ways the superintendents believe Arntzen’s leadership has negatively impacted Montana school districts and the Office of Public Education, including departments that are short-staffed and under-resourced.

“The bottom line is that for us to best do our jobs, we need you to be doing yours,” the letter stated.

In an emailed statement, Arntzen said she took the concerns and feedback seriously and that OPI’s collective mission is to put students first. The superintendents’ letter made it clear the current “touchpoints of communication” between school district leaders and her office were not enough.

“The OPI, like you, continues to go through the growing pains of pandemic change,” she wrote. “We must work together to provide the best opportunities for every student in Montana through respectful actions.”

Under Arntzen’s leadership in the last five years, OPI has a turnover rate of roughly 90%, according to a recent investigation by Montana Free Press. The report found the turnover resulted in a loss of institutional knowledge.

Impacts from staff shortages outlined by the superintendents include the lack of a special education department director, delayed communication with districts on grant application deadlines, one person tasked with the accreditation division, confusion on collaborations between school districts and higher education and unclear plans on updating the state’s content standards.

The letter also pointed to OPI’s backlog of teacher licensure applications due to staff shortages, with the department about a month behind in answering emails.

“If teachers are not being paid, they may consider looking to other states with better functioning licensure programs, further exacerbating Montana’s educator shortage,” the superintendents wrote.

The superintendents — who represent districts that serve about 64,000 students, or 45% of public school enrollment in the state — wrote that their concerns were not related to Arntzen’s politics but to her lack of leadership over OPI.

Arntzen, a Republican, won reelection in November 2020 and previously spent 12 years as a state legislator and 23 years as a teacher.

The superintendents criticized Arntzen’s support of a planned administrative rule change she announced in early November that would allow parents to “opt out” of school policies they didn’t agree with. They called it a message to parents that school “policies are suspect and subject to their personal discretion and a rejection of education’s code of ethics.

“If you cannot advocate for the basic principles of your profession, you should not serve as our chief education officer,” the letter stated.

In Arntzen’s statement, she said her office would “continue to make necessary changes, revisit our programs, communication, and outreach, and strategically work to ensure that every district has the tools they need from the OPI.”

Arntzen said she welcomed more “mutual dialogue.”

The letter also calls out Arntzen’s attendance at a political rally where a speaker referenced shooting two superintendents.

“To have someone at a political rally you attended ‘joke’ that we should be shot because of the professional roles we play shook and outraged us. We realize you attempted to distance yourself from those comments, but this was not the first time you participated in an event that vilified public educators,” the letter stated.

In an emailed statement, Bozeman School District interim Superintendent Casey Bertram said OPI is an important partner in the school district’s goal to meet the needs of its students and it appreciated the hard work of OPI staff.

But the district is experiencing delays and gaps in service because of the office’s “unprecedented turnover rate and staffing shortages.”

“Bozeman Public Schools has dedicated and hard-working employees and a Board of Trustees who cares about student success. We would like to see leadership at OPI working with and not against our local schools and School Board,” Bertram wrote.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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