Montana Board of Public Education appointments up in the air

Gianforte breaks with tradition in reopening posts

By: - January 5, 2021 5:00 am

(Illustration by Getty Images)

Retired judge Jeremiah Lynch and educator Sharon Carroll, the most recent appointments to the Montana Board of Public Education, have competition for their board seats.

Last year, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Lynch, of Missoula, and Carroll, of Ekalaka, to the board overseeing public education, but they have yet to be confirmed by the Senate; the Montana Legislature meets just every other year for 90 days.

Before he took office, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte put unconfirmed board appointments on notice that he was opening up their positions for reconsideration.

By the Nov. 30 deadline, 70 people had applied for those two positions, said Gianforte press secretary Brooke Stroyke. Altogether, she noted some 70 to 80 boards have positions that require Senate confirmation.

In this case, the future composition of the seven-member bipartisan board that supervises elementary and secondary schools is up in the air as educators cope with fallout from the pandemic for nearly 150,000 children.

Lynch and Carroll declined to comment for this story through Peter Donovan, outgoing executive director for the Montana Board of Public Education. However, Donovan said in a phone call they are interested in being confirmed and continuing their service.

“I’ve worked for five governors, and they’ve always honored this process. It has never been a problem in the past,” Donovan said.

The move by Gianforte is a break with tradition, but the political landscape in Montana is new this year, too.

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Marissa Perry, communications director for former Gov. Bullock, said Bullock appointed each of the board members for their specific expertise. Lynch is a retired magistrate judge whose seat on the Board of Environmental Review also requires confirmation, according to a list of interim appointments provided by the former governor’s office. Lynch’s term started in May 2020.

“His legal credentials and personality came instantly to mind when the Governor had a vacancy and the Board (of public education) requested he consider adding someone with significant legal background to assist in discussion of legal issues in front of the board,” Perry said in an email.

She noted Carroll is a lifelong educator who has served as chairwoman of the board previously. The Ekalaka Eagle noted Carroll was first appointed to the board in 2007, and the materials Perry provided note her most recent term started in October 2020. Perry said it made sense to have continuity rather than try to onboard a new member.

“When a vacancy occurred earlier this year (2020), it was determined that given the pandemic and the upcoming Gubernatorial transition … that a seasoned member would be ideal and best equipped to jump into the position and hit the ground running,” Perry said last week.

Board member Mary Jo Bremner’s term expires Feb. 1. She’s a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and holds a master’s in education from the University of Montana, according to her Board of Public Education biography. The website notes she taught high school history and government in Browning for 28 years and has served as president of the local teacher’s union for 14 years.

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Last week, spokesperson Perry said Gianforte’s decision to reopen appointments was causing confusion for board members and unnecessary work for staff.

“Legally, he has the ability to name replacement candidates should the Senate choose to vacate any of the positions,” Perry said. “But to presumptively assume that Senate Confirmation will not be occurring and then to have already done all the work to identify, recruit, onboard and prepare new candidates for positions that are already filled is a lot of added work on a part of his office that already has hundreds of appointments to work with.”

Montana law specifies how the governor fills board vacancies. In part, it notes that board members have full authority of their offices even if the legislature “has not yet confirmed the appointment.

“If the legislature does not confirm the appointment, the governor shall make a new appointment to fill the unexpired term.”

Before he left office, Bullock drafted a letter to Gianforte submitting the list of his appointments that require confirmation. Citing state statute, the letter said the governor must submit the names to the Senate by the 10th day of the legislative session.

“Thank you in advance for sending these materials onto the State Senate,” Bullock wrote in the letter slated for electronic and hand delivery Monday.

In November, Republicans swept into all statewide offices, and Gianforte trounced Democratic opponent and former Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney with 54 percent of the vote. Gianforte’s win put a Republican in the governor’s office for the first time in 16 years, and he took his oath Monday.

“It’s within the authority of the sitting governor at the time of the 67th Montana legislature to transmit appointments to the Senate for confirmation,” said Stroyke in an email. “(Gov. Gianforte) looks forward to considering interim appointments and other qualified candidates for the Board of Public Education who will help lead Montana’s comeback.”

Stroyke said Gianforte did not have a set deadline for submitting his nominees for confirmation but would do so “once all candidates have been considered.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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