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Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen has wrangled the Montana Teacher of the Year program away from the state teachers’ union and placed it under Office of Public Instruction control.

This action comes less than a year after a pair of Montana Teachers of the Year appeared in teachers union-bought television spots stumping for Arntzen’s Democrat opponent.

Most other state education departments across the country run their teacher of the year programs, which are sponsored by the national Council of Chief State School Officers. The move was well within Arntzen’s authority and will take effect for the 2018-19 school year. But union officials who opposed Arntzen’s candidacy have been further rankled by the switch.

Arntzen, a Republican, notified MEA-MFT that she would be bringing the program into OPI about six weeks ago, said union President Eric Feaver. The union oversees the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation, which administered the Teacher of the Year program and other professional development and certification programs.

He declined an invitation to visit with OPI officials and a CCSSO representative about the program’s switch and didn’t want to hand it over in the first place.

“It’s kind of like asking us to train her to do our job,” Feaver said.

OPI spokesman Dylan Klapmeier was hopeful the foundation would choose to join a group OPI is assembling to figure out how a new selection process will work. He said that details for a new selection process would be developed over the coming months.

“It’s important that they have a voice in the process,” he said.

He said that the ads last fall didn’t play into the decision to move the program under OPI.

“I would not say that the program is politicized right now, but the superintendent has certainly expressed her opinion that she does not want it to be politicized,” he said. “It is certainly her intention to make sure that it is not politicized.”

Klapmeier said he couldn’t say if Arntzen thought the ads citing Teacher of the Year awards were inappropriate and didn’t respond after saying he’d check with Arntzen on her opinion.

Feaver maintained that the union “never politicized the program.” The TV spots supporting Democrat Melissa Romano were paid for by MEA-MFT. A pair of teachers, Craig Beals of Billings Senior High and Anne Keith of Chief Joseph Middle School in Bozeman, explain their support for Romano. Arntzen isn’t mentioned.

When asked if he thought the program switch was related to the ads, Feaver said, “draw your own conclusions.”

Beals, the 2015 Teacher of the Year known for holding fire in his hand during in science demonstrations, said he couldn’t say what motives were for switching the program to OPI control.

“That’s part of the political world that I’m not involved in,” he said. “I’m just hoping the program is just as successful as it’s been with the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation. They’ve really turned it into a celebration of teaching in the state as opposed to a celebration of one person.”

In a press release Friday, Arntzen said she wanted to “elevate” the program and wield it as a tool for recruiting and retaining teachers, something that rural schools in Montana increasingly struggle with. She also cited an OPI-run program having a “direct line” to the superintendent.

“She hasn’t expressed in any meetings that I’ve heard that she thought it was lacking,” Klapmeier said about past coordination with OPI for previous teachers of the year.

He said the new selection process will likely involve a committee with people representing diverse education interests, and that it will involve several OPI division, not political staff, to help promote continuity — an “agency initiative, not just out of her office.”

He said that Teachers of the Year can be a valuable voice on policy issues.

“They’re the experts on the ground,” he said.



Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.