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As Trump demands schools reopen buildings, Montana officials keep focus on local control
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As Trump demands schools reopen buildings, Montana officials keep focus on local control

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President Donald Trump speaks during a "National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America's Schools" event July 7 in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Amid a mish-mash of guidance about how Montana schools should handle the upcoming school year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there's been a consistent theme — local school districts make their own decisions. 

President Donald Trump appeared to refute that this week in Twitter posts declaring that school "MUST OPEN," and that federal funding could be withheld from those who don't return to their usual in-person instruction. He also cast doubt on CDC recommendations for reopening, calling them "impractical" and "expensive."

The comments made waves across the national education landscape; many schools have eyed a mix of remote learning and in-person instruction as a way to implement social distancing and other health measures, and many reopening plans are rooted in guidance from the CDC or similar guidance from other groups.  

Ultimately, education leaders in Montana seem to be staying the course, even as their reaction to Trump's comments vary. All agreed that local districts are still poised to make their own decisions. Some cast doubt on the likelihood of the feds withholding money, while some were more concerned.  

Some viewed Trump's comments, which were backed up by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as a federal intrusion into what should be a local issue. 

“There is an unfortunate history of the federal government playing a heavy hand … often in onerous ways that limit local control,” said Lance Melton, who leads the Montana School Boards Association. 

Dennis Parman, who leads the Montana Rural Education Association, said that he views Trump's comments as "posturing."

“Would they actually penalize local districts for exercising their Montana constitutional authority?” he said. “I’d have to say it's posturing. ... (But) it’s certainly a message, and the message was pretty loud and clear (Tuesday).”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, a Republican who has vocally supported Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, downplayed the tone of Trump's comments — which included a tweet saying "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!"

“I believe that what the president was saying is 'let's put some stability into a discussion of having schools open,'” she said, while maintaining that Montana schools would be able to choose their own reopening policies. 

“When the words are used that 'will be opened, or having that all open,' I don’t know if that means or reflects what is occurring at that point,” she said. “It’s exceedingly important that we consider local control.”

Melton cautioned against simplifying recommendations for the sake of easier implementation.  

“I think it just exposes kids and their families and the staff to increased risk of infection that we can’t afford,” he said. 

Future funding

The Trump administration clarified the President's comments Wednesday.

Vice President Mike Pence said that schools that don't reopen buildings could be cut out from future federal coronavirus relief money.

A Trump spokeswoman said that the administration is "looking at potential redirecting (of funding) to make sure it goes to the student and it is most likely tied to the student and not to a district where schools are closed” — something several education experts viewed as a reference to funding school choice programs that have long been a priority for Trump and DeVos. 

Melton said that he considered Trump's funding comments "significant," and that it fit a pattern of the increasing use of executive authority in education policy. He doubted that an executive action requiring schools to have in-person instruction would hold up in court, but that such a move could lead to a dragged-out legal fight. 

“We’re authorized by Montana law to provide education both on-site and off site,” he said. “I think our schools have the law on their side.”

Arntzen doubted that regular funding would be withheld, noting that previous disputes between states and feds didn't lead to funding halts. 

“If I use that just as a historical reference, I don’t believe that the future will say that there will be money withheld,” she said. 

Future COVID-19 relief for schools has been a hot topic, especially as schools begin to roll out reopening plans that include safety measures likely to require more money than their usual funding. Melton, Parman, and other education officials have said the $41 million in CARES Act funding won't be enough to pay for schools' coronavirus-related costs. 

Arntzen said that “at this point, no one really knows” if schools will need more aid.  

Melton said that costs could soar, especially in larger school systems. 

“In a AA (school) community, I think it's absolutely safe to assume that the costs of reopening and reopening safely are going to be in the millions,” he said. “The CARES Act funding … is not going to go far enough.

“Something’s got to give.”

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