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Frustration with OPI has been building for months, Missoula superintendent says

Missoula School Superintendent Rob Watson
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Missoula School Superintendent Rob Watson

The superintendents of all eight of Montana’s AA school districts wrote a letter last week expressing “disappointment” and “no confidence” in Montana’s superintendent of public instruction.

Those superintendents represent districts in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Belgrade, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula. Superintendents from Butte Silver-Bow, Wheatland, Sweet Grass and Missoula counties sent a separate but similar letter.

They say widespread turnover within Elsie Arntzen’s Office of Public Instruction hampers important services the agency offers. The superintendents also say Arntzen undermines schools’ efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by advocating for policies that would allow parents to opt out of district rules, such as mask mandates.

Billings Public School superintendent Greg Upham declined further comment late last week saying only, “The letter speaks for itself. Moving forward those are areas that need to be addressed and addressed significantly.”

Missoula School Superintendent Rob Watson tells Montana Public Radio’s Edward O’Brien that frustrations with OPI have intensified over the past three months.

Rob Watson As we started to talk through some of the issues, it became fairly apparent that this was a leadership issue at OPI. Several of us had tried to work through the proper channels and get some resolution, but were unable to feel like we had a lot of resolution around some of those issues. And so because it mainly came down to a leadership issue, we felt collectively it was the right decision to point that out.

Edward O'Brien I'm not going to ask you to rehash a line-item specific grievance of this four-and-a-half-page letter. But for the benefit of those listeners who perhaps are out of the loop, how would you summarize what is happening? Or maybe more to the point, what you all feel is not happening at Montana's OPI?

Watson Staffing is a critical piece, and granted, we're all struggling with a labor shortage and I get that. But one of the things we work on really diligently at the district level is retaining the staff that we do have and making sure that we can still supply support to parents and students. What we were getting from OPI is this significant amount of turnover and in fact, turnover from folks that had been there a long time, and we weren't getting any support in some critical areas like teacher licensure and special education. That's when it became critical for us to point out that we believe this is a leadership issue.

O'Brien Yeah. Is this a leadership issue? Is it another symptom, as you said, of the widespread staffing shortages that is hitting everybody hard? Is it possibly simply a pandemic related hardship?

Watson Well, I don't want to characterize it as any one thing. I think all of those things definitely play into it. I mentioned earlier that as employers, especially our AA school districts who are large employers, it's our responsibility to diagnose the problem and put some things into place to try to curb that. One of the things I mentioned earlier was retention. So granted, it's hard to find new folks in this labor shortage. So that means you double your attention on making sure your employees have job satisfaction. They feel like they're compensated for their jobs, but also just making sure that you're supporting them and to retain them in their positions, because that's the one piece that I think we all have control over. Even though we can't control the labor market, we have the ability to put some things into place to retain our employees.

O'Brien I've seen a few comments on social media that this was a politically driven message.

Watson For me personally, this is not a political issue. This is a leadership issue. I think any one of us that leads large organizations play that role as a leader, and we have to be ready to try to solve problems to support our organizations.

O'Brien Superintendent Arntzen issued a statement this week saying she takes these concerns "humbly and seriously" and hopes for more communication. Have you all heard back from her team? Are there any concrete plans to sit around a table in Helena or a virtual Zoom room? And if not patch this up, at least try to hammer out some solutions?

Watson I personally have not spoken to Superintendent Arntzen, nor anyone else at OPI. I do know some of the other AA superintendents have received some communication. I do think there are some plans in the works to try to resolve some of the concerns by talking with some of the leadership at OPI. And so I'm hopeful for that. I think there will be an opportunity for us to really talk this through.

O'Brien This isn't going to get fixed overnight, but in your mind, what would be a really good first step to get this ball rolling?

Watson Well, I think a good first step would be, you know, what can we do at the local level to support OPI through this difficult time? We all have folks in our districts that are experts in certain areas. For example, we have a highly qualified special education director, and she could be of great help to try to help OPI get through some of these tough times where they're low on staff. So I think that would be a great first step is what can we do to band together to help OPI get through this tough time?

O'Brien Missoula County Public School Superintendent Rob Watson, very much appreciate your time and perspective.

Watson Thank you.

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