In a departure from tradition, neither of former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s appointments to the Montana Board of Public Education held onto their seats during the 2021 Montana Legislature.
Sharon Carroll, who served on the board for 14 years, submitted her resignation before the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee took up her confirmation last week. Carroll is a longtime educator from Ekalaka and served for five years as chairwoman of the board.
“It is with sorrow and regret that I submit my resignation from Montana’s Board of Public Education after hearing that I will quite likely not be confirmed by Montana’s Senate,” Carroll wrote in her resignation letter. “I am saddened that the Montana Senate does not value the input of a sitting classroom teacher from eastern Montana.”
Despite significant praise from education officials for his dedication and legal expertise, the committee voted 6-4 in a hearing Wednesday for a “do not pass” regarding the confirmation of Jeremiah Lynch. Lynch, a magistrate judge from Missoula and the longest-serving person in that position when he retired in 2019, had stepped onto the board in May 2020. The full Senate voted 31-19 on Thursday to support the “do not pass” action.
Prior to the vote in committee, McCall Flynn, executive director of the Board of Public Education, urged the confirmation of Lynch and spoke of the high caliber of board appointments in general. The seven-member bipartisan board supervises elementary and secondary schools and some 150,000 students in Montana.
“The Board of Public Education has been fortunate to receive support from the Senate for each and every board member up for confirmation since at least 1999,” Flynn said; she said that’s as far back as records are available on the legislative website.
No one brought testimony against Lynch. Committee members voted to oppose his confirmation with no statements about his service and no questions for the judge or any others who had testified about his tenure. Sen. Daniel Salomon, R-Ronan, presented the candidate to the committee but also voted against Lynch.
At the meeting, Lynch said he embraced diverse opinions and deep discussion, and he welcomed questions from committee members. This weekend, he said he was disappointed legislators didn’t bother to ask him about his record at all.
“I think an informed, robust discussion is what the people of Montana deserve, and the hearings are farcical,” Lynch said. “I think it’s a craven abdication of these legislators’ sworn duty to the people of Montana. I don’t care if they agree with me. But have the courage to discuss with me what it is about my qualifications that you find concerning. But in neither of my hearings did that happen.” (Lynch also was up for confirmation to the Board of Environmental Review.)
Carroll went through two previous confirmation hearings, and she said the process was smooth, and she had support of former Republican lawmaker Sen. Eric Moore of her district. At the meeting last week, the board chair and representatives from the Montana Federation of Public Employees, Montana Quality Education Coalition, School Administrators of Montana and Montana Rural Education Association all spoke in favor of both Lynch and Susie Hedalen, the latter appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Carroll, who listened to a recording of the hearing afterward because she was teaching at the time, said she was surprised that so many comments in favor of a candidate could lead to opposition, and without any explanation from lawmakers. She contrasted that lack of transparency with the operation of the Board of Public Education.
“When there’s a do-not-pass after so much positive testimony, I was shocked — and probably completely naïve,” Carroll said. She added, “Boy, times are a’changing.”
Before he was sworn into office last month as the first Republican in that role in 16 years, Gov. Gianforte sent a memo that put unconfirmed board appointments on notice he was opening up their positions for reconsideration. His office said some 70 people had applied for the two positions on the Board of Public Education by the Nov. 30 deadline.
Typically, the governor appoints members, and the Senate confirms them when it convenes. Since the Montana Legislature meets for 90 days just every other year, those board members can serve in their roles well before any confirmation hearings. They are appointed to staggered seven-year terms with no more than four members of the same political party.
At the meeting, Flynn said the board had been fortunate to have had Native American representation, members with legal background, and an array of teachers, school administrators, and other interested people. With the resignation of Carroll, the board no longer had a sitting classroom teacher or any representation east of Bozeman, she said. With the expiration this month of the term of Mary Jo Bremner of Browning, she said, the board also would no longer have Native American representation.
Board Chair Darlene Schottle, who has served six years, told legislators the board was in a unique position with three open positions. She said she hoped the senators would confirm two new members recommended by Gov. Gianforte and balance those newcomers by confirming Lynch for his “incredibly helpful” contributions and for continuity on the board.
In committee, the senators split on party lines, with the following Republican members voting to “do not pass” the confirmation of Lynch: Sen. Salomon; Chair Russ Tempel of Chester; Vice Chair Kenneth Bogner of Miles City; Greg Hertz of Polson; Theresa Manzella of Hamilton; and Keith Regier of Kalispell.
The following Democratic senators opposed the “do not pass” measure: Vice Chair Edie McClafferty of Butte; Shannon O’Brien of Missoula; Mark Sweeney of Philipsburg; and Susan Webber of Browning. McClafferty said Lynch was “very qualified for this position.”
“He’s very dedicated to our public education in the state of Montana, and I just think that it is very sad that he’s not being confirmed,” she said.
The committee unanimously supported four of Gov. Gianforte’s education appointments, and the full Senate also gave them unanimous support: Hedalen of Townsend was confirmed to the Board of Public Education, with Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras speaking in her support at the meeting; and Todd Buchanan of Billings, student regent Amy Sexton of Billings, and Loren Bough of Big Sky were confirmed for the Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education.
In his own remarks to the committee prior to the vote, Lynch said he hoped the outcome of the hearing was not preordained. As a judge dealing with the criminal justice system, he said he saw tragedies visited upon families, and he saw the importance of education.
“It became clear to me that the key to stemming violence and crime is education,” Lynch said.
He said his four children received “an awesome” education in the Great Falls school district, and now he has grandchildren who attend or soon will attend public schools around the state. When Bullock asked him to serve, Lynch said he was “elated,” and he noted Gianforte himself states that he strives to appoint a variety of Montanans to state boards.
“I take him at his word, and I ask each of you to live up to his promise and acknowledge through my confirmation that it matters not that I am a Democrat but that I am well qualified for this seat on the board,” Lynch said in committee.
This weekend, the judge said he still wanted to be involved in public service when he retired, and the environment and education are his passions. Lynch has a master’s degree in zoology in addition to his law degree.
He also said he would understand legislators taking a critical look at his background, but he was especially disturbed that Carroll would not make the cut; he said Bullock’s appointments had heard their confirmations were “dead upon arrival.”
“(Carroll is) an extremely, extremely bright and articulate woman, and I’m confident there’s no individual in the state of Montana with more knowledge of the educational system than Sharon, or has a greater passion for providing on the ground a quality education for Montana students,” Lynch said.
Carroll said she and her husband are ranchers, she believes in service, and she would be happy to support another teacher who would lend representation from eastern Montana to the board. She’s in the midst of face-to-face instruction in the pandemic and wants people in that risky position to be among the decision makers on the board.
“I’m sad about that for Montana. It doesn’t have to be me,” Carroll said. At the same time, she said she is optimistic the people the Senate does confirm will wholeheartedly pursue the Montana Constitution’s promise of a free quality public education for students. “I want to be a pollyanna by saying the two remaining members who will be appointed will always keep in mind the mission and not bow to an outside influence that is not thinking about public education.”