All Montana public school teachers and administrators must visit their county school superintendent’s office to have their professional certifications signed. The superintendent is not required to ascertain that the individual is qualified to teach or administer schools; the Montana Office of Public Instruction has that responsibility.
In Yellowstone County, the county superintendent of schools signature is merely stamped on the certification document by an office clerk.
So why do thousands of educators do this? Because Montana law requires it.
The recent controversy over letters to the editor from Max Lenington, Yellowstone County treasurer, assessor and county superintendent of schools, brought to light an outdated Montana law that requires every county to have a county superintendent of schools.
Recent letters to The Gazette have revealed considerable confusion about the role of the county superintendent. The confusion is understandable; the office isn’t in charge of any schools.
More than a century ago, as Montanans began providing for public education, the county superintendent of schools was the only school administrator around. Today, schools are organized as districts and governed by elected trustees. OPI allocates money directly to school districts, using a formula and budget set by the Legislature.
According to research by the Office of Public Instruction, at least 17 counties have consolidated the county school superintendent office with another office. In Yellowstone, Golden Valley, Cascade, Treasure, Prairie, McCone, Granite, Broadwater, Mineral, Sanders and Toole counties, it is combined with the treasurer’s office.
In Valley, Ravalli, Daniels, Fallon, Roosevelt and Sheridan counties, it is combined with the county clerk’s office.
Additional counties have only part-time county school superintendents.
The majority of Montana’s 56 counties no longer have a full-time county school superintendent, said Dave Puyear, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association.
Montana law allows counties to consolidate the office, as Yellowstone and 16 others have done. But it still requires each county to have a superintendent who is a certified school administrator. In the case of a consolidated office not headed by a person with certification, the county must contract with a certified administrator to handle any school hearings. Yellowstone contracts with a retired Billings school administrator.
Furthermore, state law requires the county superintendent to do paper work processing that is a waste of time for thousands of educators.
Some of the statutory duties of county superintendents may be needed for 21st century Montana education, but clearly some are perfunctory and duplicative. We aren’t criticizing the county superintendents, clerks or contract administrators who faithfully perform duties as required by law. We are saying it’s time to re-examine the law, and assess what — if anything — Montana schools actually need from a county superintendent.
Legislators should act
Counties should be given authority to abolish the office if it isn’t needed in their county. It makes no sense to require that a public elected official have the title of county superintendent of schools when he doesn’t actually work with the schools or have supervisory control over any schools.
This is a job for Yellowstone County lawmakers and others concerned about efficiency in government. There’s ample time to review the statutes and offer updates in the 2015 Legislature.