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Superintendent Arntzen wants to allow parents to 'opt out' of school board rules

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen
Elsie Arntzen

Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction was the featured speaker at a recent church event in Missoula to discuss parental rights and announced a possible rule to allow parents to opt out of school board requirements, like mask mandates.

It’s unclear if the state has the authority for such a policy.

The Missoulian first reported that Superintendent Elsie Arntzen is drafting the policy that could allow parents to opt out of school board rules.

Arntzen told MTPR that her potential rule would seek exemptions for school policies to allow parents to make “responsible choices.” She says the rule is needed because the “one-size-fits-all” model doesn’t work for all kids in school.

“And what I am seeking then, is to see where should those exemptions be? What would bring that case of an exemption up? And that’s why public comment is so important.”

Arntzen says she didn’t have draft language of the rule that she can share with MTPR. She says her office is combing through Montana law to see if the Office of Public Instruction has the authority to implement an opt-out rule.

Artnzen says she wants to hear from Montanans before anything is finalized.

“I believe that an emergency rule is not appropriate. That what we need to do is we need to have all of Montana’s voices listened to and recorded in a very public manner. And we are researching the authority given to my office via law, as well as what extended authority there could be moving forward.”

During her speech at Crosspoint Community Church, Arntzen said an “us vs them” mentality is a challenge in school board meetings and communities.

Across the country, tensions between parents and local school boards have been mounting during the pandemic.

“The last time you spoke up here, what is it you said about what to do with these two superintendents,” Gehl asked. “Shoot ‘em,” Rhoades responded from the audience.

The Montana School Boards Association recently voted to leave the National School Boards Association after the national group penned a letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal law enforcement’s help to deal with threats over COVID-19 requirements at schools. The MSBA says most conflicts can be handled by local law enforcement.

Lance Melton is the executive director for the Montana School Boards Association. He says the state superintendent doesn’t have rulemaking authority to allow parents across the state to ignore school board policies.

“That’s just not likely to survive any kind of appreciable challenge.”

He says parents can already challenge school board rules like the mask requirements in court — and parents in Missoula and Gallatin counties are doing that. Melton says preliminary injunctions issued ahead of a final ruling in those cases said the state’s Constitution gives school boards authority to implement public health measures.

“I can’t imagine any rule that the superintendent might have the authority to draft that would override that constitutional authority that the people have delegated to elected school boards.”

During the “Parent Rights in Education Action” meeting at Crosspoint Church in Missoula, a local attorney who represents parents challenging school board mask requirements made a controversial statement. Quentin Rhoades was responding to a question from Missoula County Public Schools trustee Mike Gehl.

“The last time you spoke up here, what is it you said about what to do with these two superintendents,” Gehl asked.

“Shoot ‘em,” Rhoades responded from the audience.

Crosspoint Church posted the full audio of the meeting on its website.

Rhoades released a statement saying he was joking and didn’t intend to offend anyone.

Missoula County Public Schools in a statement says advocating violence against its superintendents is never a joke, and doing so toward public school officials is especially troubling.

Superintendent Arntzen condemned Rhoades’ comment.

“It is so challenging that adults, again, make statements that — however can be misconstrued or however can be stated — that it’s incumbent on government to rebuke that.”

Arntzen says her office may be ready to unveil what the policy for allowing parents to opt out of school board rules might look like in late spring.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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