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School Superintendent Candidates Highlight Their Priorities During Weekend Debate

Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Elsie Arntzen, Melissa Romano and Kevin Leatherbarrow.
Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Elsie Arntzen, Melissa Romano and Kevin Leatherbarrow.

The Republican and Democratic candidates vying to be Montana’s state schools superintendent each pitched themselves as the best person for the job during a debate hosted by MTN News on Sunday. The Republican incumbent is an advocate for local control of public schools, saying “one size fits all” policies don’t work. The Democrat challenging her is pushing to expand statewide education programs.

The race is a rematch from 2016 between Republican Elsie Arntzen, the incumbent state superintendent, and her challenger, Melissa Romano, a Democrat and teacher from Helena.

During the debate, Romano repeatedly criticized Arntzen’s tenure, saying Arntzen was missing from important debates regarding bills that would benefit public education at the state Legislature, like a bill that would have expanded the state’s loan forgiveness program for teachers.

"Our students need an advocate who’s going to show up at the Legislature and advocate on their behalf," Romano said.

Arntzen said that isn’t true, that she served as a state legislator for 12 years and has built strong relationships with lawmakers. Arntzen talked about her work on bills that aimed to address school safety concerns in 2019. She said she brings a positive vision to the office.

"And Melissa, you seem to be more of tearing down rather than building up. And I believe Montanans deserve more," Arntzen said.

When asked how the Office of Public Instruction has led schools through the pandemic, Arntzen said training teachers for online instruction was a top priority.

"Professionally developing our teachers is exceedingly important."

Arntzen said that a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work for Montana. She’s been critical of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock over the last few months, most recently when he mandated masks for K-12 schools and also when he allocated $75 million to public schools. Artzen said Bullock didn’t consult her beforehand, Bullock has disputed that.

Romano said if she were state superintendent during this time, she wouldn’t complain about the mandate or argue with Bullock about the money he directed to schools.

"This is the time where the state superintendent needs to show leadership, and putting our students first means advocating for their safety."

Romano said she’d push for the creation of a statewide public preschool program from her first day in office. Such a program has been a major goal for Bullock during his two terms in office, but bills to create the program have failed. It was projected to cost $22 million in a 2019 bill.

"We know that when our young learners have public preschool opportunities, they’re more likely to read on grade level, graduate high school on time, and make more money over their lifetime."

Arntzen didn’t give her thoughts on public preschool. She said the Office of Public Instruction needs to be realistic this year when it takes requests to lawmakers, given the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

"Our state budget right now is in peril. We have people who are unemployed."

Arntzen said she’d work with lawmakers to pass the legally-mandated school budget. She said tax increases weren’t appropriate but also didn’t advocate for cuts to address potential impacts to the budget.

Romano said that public money should go to public schools and not be syphoned away through tax credits from the students who need it the most.

Romano said she disagrees with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a state tax credit program that can benefit private religious schools and the families who send their kids to them.

"I am really looking forward to putting the public back into the Superintendent of Public Instruction, she said.

Arntzen said that the court has spoken and the program is law now. She said she firmly believes in public schools, but she prioritizes students first.

Kevin Leatherbarrow is a Libertarian candidate also running for state superintendent, but he was not part of Sunday’s debate.

Election Day is Nov. 3.

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Coming Soon: Shared State

Montana’s 2020 election will be among the most contentious and closely watched in the country. The neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race could swing control of the “world’s most deliberative body.” The governor’s race, which Republicans haven’t controlled since 2004, is likely to be just as hard-fought, with a two-term Democrat leaving office in a state that voted for Donald Trump by 20 points the last election.

But beneath the headlines, deeper issues are at play. Learn more about them with Shared State, a new series from Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio about the hidden values driving Montana’s 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.

Listen at our websites or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts beginning Sept 8. Tune in on Montana Public Radio Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. starting September 5.

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