Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


By Andi Bourne

Superintendent of Public Instruction Candidates Share Platforms

Candidate Forum 3 of 5


Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

SEELEY LAKE - The Seeley Lake Community Council hosted two candidate forums, Sept. 19 and Sept. 26, at the Seeley Lake Community Hall. Candidates for state and local races answered questions from moderator and Council Chair Klaus von Sutterheim and the audience.

All candidates that will appear on the ballot including Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians, were invited.

This week the Pathfinder features the candidates for Superintendent of Public Instruction and Public Service Commissioner.

Visit for coverage of the Governor/Lieutenant Governor; U.S. Congress; Secretary of State; State Attorney General; Montana Supreme Court and State Auditor candidates. Look for the Montana State Senate District 46 and Montana House District 92 coverage in the next issue.

Absentee voters will receive their ballots Oct. 14. The general election is Nov. 8.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: This is a statewide office responsible for overseeing and coordinating the state's elementary and secondary schools. Democrats have controlled the Office of Public Instruction since 1989. Incumbent Denise Juneau (D) is seeking election to a seat in the U.S. House. Teacher Melissa Romano (D) and State Senator Elsie Arntzen (R) are on the ballot in November. Both were in attendance at the forum.

Melissa Romano (D) grew up in Helena, Mont. She taught in Helena through the end of last year.

Romano remembered how, as a student, her second and third grade teacher had a profound impact on her. She recognized that there are countless teachers like her teacher and 144,000 students in Montana.

"[Students] are the reason I'm in this race. I believe in the work that is happening in our public schools. I believe that work needs to be protected and enhanced in order to move Montana's economy forward," said Romano.

First Romano intends to work on improving schools infrastructure. She said that nearly 70 percent of the schools in Montana were built before the 1970s and every district is facing some kind of major repair or rebuild.

"Our students deserve 21st century learning spaces, spaces that will inspire them to learn and keep them on a path to success in the real world," said Romano.

Second, Romano will work to provide a plan for public preschool. Romano thinks that to maintain the record high graduation rates that currently exist, the state must invest in preschool-age learning.

Romano taught kindergarten and has seen how a positive preschool experience prepares students to be ready to learn.

Third, Romano will work and fight for all Montana students so they have the tools to be successful.

"I believe in the work in our public schools and I really want us to make sure we are making the proper investments that will propel Montana students forward and keep us on the path to success for years to come," said Romano.

Elsie Arntzen (R) is a fourth-generation Montanan. She was born and raised in Yellowstone County in Billings, Mont.

Arntzen taught in the classroom for 23 years. She graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Montana. She earned her education degree from Montana State University.

"It is important that this position seeks success for kids," said Arntzen. "For 30 years this office has been held by one special interest group. And it's not focused on the kids."

Arntzen recognized the increased graduation rates, but said the most important thing is the value of the diploma and the ability to take the skills taught in classroom into the community.

"All of our kids don't go to school," said Arntzen. "Let's make sure we wrap mental health around them."

Arntzen would like to create a counseling initiative for junior high.

"If kids can reflect on who they are, they are going to want to know who they can be," said Arntzen. "The sky is the limit. Wrap mental health with it first; then it can put strong academic focus."

Arntzen also wants to establish a structural committee for Career Technical Education (CTE), where students can use their hands. This will allow students to work in school and take those skills out to an employer or start their own business.

"I'm excited about putting the economic degree as well as the compassion that I gathered for 23 years in the classroom forward to this office," said Arntzen.

What distinguishes you from your opponent?

Arntzen: Life experiences. She said she's been married "forever" and has two daughters and four grandchildren.

"I learned a lot about education around the kitchen table," said Arntzen whose father was an American History teacher and her mother taught special education.

Arntzen feels that she can use her 12 years of experience with the legislature and put forward the collaboration and relationships to work for the schools.

"It is about starting day one because the focus is on kids," said Arntzen.

Romano: She is not a career politician, instead she is an award-winning teacher proud to be in the public schools. She taught up until last June and will bring a new face and a fresh perspective to the office. She will bring her commitment, dedication and passion that she has had in the classroom with her to the office of public instruction.

Romano said that while she does not have the legislative experience, she noted that Arntzen voted to cut funding from public schools and supported bills that diverted tax dollars away from public schools.

"Our public tax dollars should be supporting our public schools," said Romano. "When I'm in office that is something I will always advocate for because it is kids that matter and every student needs to have the tools to learn."

How do you ensure that the expectation of our teachers is being done equally?

Romano: In Montana there is local control at the school board level. That was established by the constitution and she will continue to support that local control.

"At the state level, making sure that we are providing excellent professional development to keep quality teachers in front of kids will always be something I advocate for," said Romano.

Arntzen: The number one thing is a quality educator in front of kids. She is not happy with the status quo or having one test score determine proficiency.

"We can do better on the local control," said Arntzen.

Arntzen said professional development (PIR) days haven't changed since 1993. Teachers are required to learn the new math, reading, science, art and health standards on their own.

Arntzen said that is about a $12 million price tag from the legislature. "I would be more than happy to ask them to do that because it is about quality educators."

Is there a way we can make sure a teacher can pass the tests they give their students?

Arntzen: Accountability at the local level should make that determination, instead of having that power in Helena.

Arntzen suggested breaking away from the status quo for the accreditation and recertification process and giving more of that authority to the local school board trustees.

Romano: Quality, affordable professional development would help teachers. Expanding the trainings from the Montana Educators Association (MEA) conference in October to online and/or smaller trainings would be beneficial.

Romano would like to see a statewide teacher mentorship program. She cited research that said teachers that had a mentor in their first five years of teaching were more likely to continue teaching, build their content knowledge and become better teachers.

Why does the MEA-MFT teachers' union back Romano and not Arntzen?

Romano: "They believe in the things I do, protecting public education and ensuring tax dollars support public schools," said Romano. "I want kids to grow up to be productive citizens that will strengthen Montana's economy and make it better."

Arntzen: Has been a member of MEA-MFT in Billings for 20 years.

"When you [affiliate with] a political party, things turn," said Arntzen. "For 30 years this has been political."

Arntzen said her job is to take it out of the political realm.

"Education is not a political football," said Arntzen. "It does not matter if you are endorsed by one or the other, the focus is on our kids and the community because you know your kids best."

What is your position on charter schools?

Arntzen: The city of Bozeman is enacting a public charter school. This opens the door to more flexibility including hours, types of curriculum and emphasis on what is taught.

Troy and Libby also have a charter to build up CTE in their high school

Romano: Feels the innovation in Bozeman, Libby and Troy is a good thing and is looking forward to seeing how it works.

However, she does not support the traditional charter schools that divert money from public schools. She pointed out Arntzen has voted for this diversion during her time in the legislature.

"I support public tax dollars supporting our public schools and going to public resources," said Romano.

What would you do to improve teachers' ability to teach and how would you hold teachers accountable?

Romano: The mentorship program would be a way to help teachers. Teachers are stepping up and leading their schools. The union has only been about professional development and feels they are doing a good job for teachers right now.

Arntzen: Said the union should be at the table, she believes in collective bargaining and said the high standards for contract law should be upheld.

However, the relationship factor should be moved from Helena to the local level.

"Your local community and local bargaining that defines what the contract should be or what the discussion should be with local administrators. It is not something that is top down," said Arntzen.

Views on distance education and technology helping small rural schools?

Arntzen: There are 411 unique school districts. As a legislator, she supported the Montana Digital Academy.

"Digital learning not only helps with the learning component, but this opens up opportunities for mental health that we are just beginning to grasp," said Arntzen.

Romano: Thinks the Montana Digital Academy is a great thing and she would like to see it expanded. It has more than 70 courses and it is free.

"Ensuring schools have access to computer and the bandwidth so students can utilize those tools is something I will advocate for," said Romano.

Closing Statements

Romano: "Montana's children are our biggest resource. The work in the public schools must be protected and enhanced to move the economy of Montana forward," said Romano. "This is a race about kids. We need to make sure we are investing in our kids today so we have a stronger economy and brighter future tomorrow."

Arntzen: Feels something different is needed because things can be done better than the last 30 years.

"I honor a classroom perspective but there needs to be something larger," said Arntzen. "I have the ability to have a conversation and relationship with the legislature."

Arntzen wants to champion putting quality educators in front of the classrooms. She wants to put more teachers in the teaching colleges and have reciprocity with other states to get the finest and the best teaching students.

Arntzen will hold the state and local boards responsible for infrastructure.

"It is about the kids. But it is not about top down, it is a bottom up because you know what is best for your communities," said Arntzen.


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