Superintendent Arntzen urges parents to voice concerns with public education

By: - November 2, 2021 7:45 pm

Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, walks into Parental Rights Education Action meeting at Crosspoint Church in Missoula, Montana on November 1, 2021. (Tommy Martino for The Daily Montanan.)

With support from Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, participants at a Parental Rights in Education Action meeting Monday vowed to take back school board seats in Missoula and reshape public education.

“This is a very magical year in Missoula County Public Schools,” said Mike Gehl, a current board trustee who will run for election to keep his recent appointment. “This year, six positions are coming open. That’s how we’re going to do this.” 

Amy Livesay, who introduced the agenda at the Crosspoint Community Church in Missoula, urged people to take action despite any feelings of discouragement and alarm about their freedoms being trampled. Behind her, a screen showed the website for the Western Montana Liberty Coalition, which notes a mission to defend liberty but does not identify officers.

“We’ve got to flip those six seats. Six of ‘em. Not four,” Livesay said.

Nearly 100 people, including frustrated parents and community members, gathered Monday night at the church to hear Arntzen, Gehl and lawyer Quentin Rhoades speak and to raise concerns they have with public education. Local activist Jane Rectenwald also spoke to raise questions about election security.

“What do you say when the whole world has kind of gone crazy, right?” Livesay said. “Good is bad. Bad is good.”

At one point, a participant asked Gehl what he would recommend if schools start requiring children to take a vaccine, and the audience applauded and cheered at his response: “I pulled my kids out of public school.” 

The state of Montana already requires some immunizations against communicable diseases, and allows for exemptions, but parents were worried about a requirement for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Gehl and his wife removed their 6th grader and 8th grader from Hellgate Elementary a couple of months ago, and he told the crowd it had been a struggle, especially for the younger child. But he said it’s also rewarding, and if other parents take their children out of schools, the schools will start to lose money.

When Gehl asked Rhoades, who is representing parents challenging mask mandates in court, to remind him of the last thing the lawyer had said about superintendents, Rhoades grinned: “Shoot ‘em?”

Gehl replied: “Fire ‘em.”

In addition to mask mandates and fear of a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for children, audience members also raised concerns about critical race theory, a roughly 40-year-old academic approach to teaching racial disparities and the way they have shaped public policy; transgender issues; and a feeling that bucking school boards means parents will be considered domestic terrorists.

In previous requests for comment, Arntzen through a spokesperson confirmed she did not have “widespread” examples of problematic teaching in Montana; she did not cite any specific examples at the meeting Monday.

In her remarks, Arntzen, who won a second term last November and reminded the crowd she was the first Republican to take the post in roughly three decades, urged parents to air grievances to teachers and go up the chain of command if necessary. At the meeting, she said 40 cents of every tax dollar goes to education, and she was honored to have received winning votes and work for parents.

Crosspoint Church in Missoula, Montana is pictured on November 1, 2021. (Tommy Martino for the Daily Montanan.)

“Now in my role as a leader of public education, I want to make sure that your voice is ringing out through that school hall, that is in that boardroom,” said Arntzen, who has spoken at other events in Montana with parents who oppose masks. “And I can tell you it’s not easy in my position. They’re saying, ‘Why aren’t you supporting school boards?’”

In her talk, she raised the subject of critical race theory and said given the challenges to monuments around the country, as well as challenges to Montana and American history, she had talked with Attorney General Austin Knudsen about critical race theory after the Montana Legislature ended. Knudsen came out with an opinion, and she shared her expectation at the meeting.

“You can teach critical race theory. But you have to teach the other side too. You can’t be biased when you teach,” Arntzen said.

In their comments to the superintendent, community members expressed frustration with online video meetings, where they couldn’t give public comment adequately or at all, and at least one said she suspected officials are falsifying COVID-19 rates in order to tap into federal aid. Arntzen asked if they felt listened to, and the answer was, “No.”

“It’s the same across Montana,” Arntzen said. “And why is that? Why is it that you’re not being listened to?”

She told one parent she would try to “fast track” her attempt to get reimbursed for a school trip for which her child had raised money; the parent said she had learned the school called for a vaccination even though Hawaii allowed a negative test result.

One member of the audience said he was upset after he brought up a Stanford study he claimed showed children don’t get COVID-19 or carry the virus. In May, Stanford Medicine News Center noted the university’s researchers found hospitalizations by children are likely overcounted, and disease severity can be overestimated.

Even though many people voiced frustrations at the meeting, one man cautioned people who were fired up to remain calm in their interactions with school boards. He advised them to speak “low and slow,” and he said he spoke from experience.

“If you go in like a terrorist, they’re going to treat you like a terrorist,” the man said. He pointed to the superintendent as a model: “She’s experienced. She knows how to communicate.”

In response to a question about the Montana School Boards Association’s involvement with the National School Boards Association, Arntzen said she had advocated that the state association remove its funding from the national organization and rebuke the call that threats against public school officials be investigated as “domestic terrorism.”

(In a news release Wednesday, the Montana School Boards Association announced its board of directors had voted Monday night to terminate membership after the current term, which ends June, 30, 2022. The news release cited “the gradual decline in NSBA’s focus on supporting community ownership and excellence of public schools over the last decade.” The NSBA has since apologized for some of the language it used in its letter but said safety is a priority.)

Arntzen said “great laws” protect the people of Montana, as do “good women and men in blue, brown and green.” But she said the state does not need interference from federal agents: “They’re going to get into your internet. They’re going to track you. … There’s no fear here. It’s those laws that are there.”

Arntzen also urged those in attendance to not lose hope in public schools, and she said she understood their skepticism. She said she had visited Alexandria, Virginia, last Wednesday, just 15 miles away from the Capitol, and she stood shoulder to shoulder with moms of Moms for America who called for better public education and said, “enough is enough.”

“I was so proud of these moms,” Arntzen said. “I’m a mom. I’m a grandmother.”

In January, Moms for America founder Kimberly Fletcher told the Associated Press that the group held a rally near the U.S. Capitol one day before the deadly Jan. 6 riots; BuzzFeed noted copies of a permit application listed Fletcher as a possible speaker for a rally Jan. 6.

Tuesday in Missoula, Arntzen urged participants to use every “peaceful outlet” to be heard and to keep asking questions: “By your voice, by your energy, our public school system will be greater. Our public school system will be that shining star.”

But she empathized with people who did not believe school officials were providing them correct information, such as COVID-19 infection rates, and she said if parents had doubt in one area, they might have doubts about other areas: “So how can you believe that math lesson? How can you believe that English book is the right book?”

Although she doesn’t anticipate it will be ready until April, Arntzen noted she is working with the attorney general on a rule that would give parents the opportunity to opt out of school board policies. She said parents can then champion their children who don’t want to wear a mask or “don’t have to have that boy in that girls’ locker room.”

In the audience, Nicole Otto said she was so angry, she was going to run for the school board, and some participants talked about making sure that like-minded candidates wouldn’t be running against each other. Others called for ousting Rob Watson, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools.

“It’s so frustrating and infuriating as a parent to have them look you in the face and say, ‘Sorry, your kid doesn’t matter. Your kid does not matter to us,’” Otto said.

She noted she had adopted a child, and masks give her child anxiety. But she said the school district’s response was to suggest the online academy, and she doesn’t want even more isolation and trauma for her daughter.

“Well, isn’t that segregating a child that has some issues?” Otto said. 

Jill Taber, though, said she had one effective strategy she could share with people. She said she had figured out that asking one question of the school board was a good approach. Rather than say “masks are dumb,” she said she posed a question: “What is the benchmark for removing the mask mandate?”

Now, she said it’s a question a task force is addressing. She also said the school district needs to make emails by task force members public so people can be involved, and she urged participants to show up at the meetings.

“They’re making decisions about your kids,” Taber said.

Participants also talked about looking ahead. Rhoades said he hopes the substance and science in the lawsuits over mask mandates will be considered, and he plans to take the fight to the Montana Supreme Court despite earlier procedural losses. He reminded people that judges are elected too, not just school board members.

“These elections all turn on that middle third. And if you guys are the middle third, you can win,” he said.

Rectenwald, who talked about election integrity in 2020, said she had asked Artnzen to push for decertification of the election in Montana. In an email Tuesday, however, Office of Public Instruction communications director Anastasia Burton said “the Superintendent stands by the certification of the election.”

Although the Legislature doesn’t meet again for another year and a half, Livesay said people are already working on a way to bring charter schools to Montana in the next session; Montana allows charter schools through the public school system, but a controversial bill to allow them outside the system failed this year.

“I know people are discouraged by lots of things, but we do have to keep pressing on,” Livesay said.

This story has been updated to clarify the status of court challenges.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.