HELENA – Selecting Montana’s top teacher has been a task for the teacher’s union in the state for more than two decades, but now, that’s changing.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen recently announced her intention to take over the Teacher of the Year Program. Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers, MEA-MFT, took over the program in 1996 after budget cuts eliminated funding in the Office Public Instruction’s office for the program.
Arntzen said her decision came after the 2017 legislative session when she saw a way to ‘grow the program.’
“There was an opportunity with the existing program and with the MEA-MFT and the foundation that it is currently housed,” Arnzen said Thursday.
As the state of Montana faces more budget cuts this year, Arntzen assured there would be room in her agency’s budget to cover the addition of this program and wouldn’t come at the price of other programs.
“A budget is a challenge, it’s a philosophy. I believe that, and a focus that comes from leadership and there is room at the table and I believe that it’s up to my leadership and of course giving leadership to our division heads here,” she explained. “I don’t believe that would be in any purview that we would want to that. That this is either Teacher of the year or we’re going to cut something else, I don’t believe that would be in at all.”
This change came as a surprise to MEA-MFT’s President Eric Feaver.
“Maybe a month ago, Superintendent Arntzen called me down to her office and told me she was taking it back,” he told MTN Tuesday. “Then Elsie came by to see me in my office and she told me one more time that she was in fact taking the program. And of course, Superintendent Arntzen likes to talk right past you.”
Feaver believes this is a reaction to the 2016 campaign cycle.
“Elections have consequences, and we did not support Superintendent Arntzen in her bid for the superintendency. Of course she has opportunity, if you will, to take her revenge, if that’s what this is, than it fits.”
The Superintendent said she does not see this as a political move, rather a way to build on the current program.
“I view this as going forward, if he would like to be stuck back there in that campaign season or any other political aspect of it, that’s up to him,” Arntzen said. “But I’m moving forward, I’ve made many comments about depoliticizing this office.”
MEA-MFT supported democrat candidate Melissa Romano and Feaver said the reasons for their pick was clear.
“We feel she had a very bad voting record in one legislature after another. She voted to privatize our public schools, she voted against teacher tenure, she voted against teacher retirement, she voted against school funding, she voted against full time kindergarten. I mean there’s almost nothing that Superintendent Arntzen as a legislator brought to the table that was positive when it comes to public schools,” Feaver explained. “So why would we support her for superintendent? We didn’t.”
All teachers, both public and private, are eligible to join MEA-MFT, however the Teacher of the Year Program is only open to public teachers in Montana.
Republican Superintendent Arntzen is known for supporting education options but said right now, she does not anticipate changing who is eligible for the award, at least not right now.
“I think we are going to begin cautiously, I think we are just going to enhance the program,” she explained. “Keeping the program as it is at this point, rather than augment it with something different, is…I want to make sure we have a good beginning.”
In an email Arnzten sent to Feaver, she said, “At the Office of Public Instruction, we believe it is essential to recognize and celebrate our great educators. The Montana Teacher of the Year Program is one way in which we can do that.”
That’s something she stands by. Arntzen said taking over the program gives her agency a chance to honor teachers across Montana and believes OPI can do a better job than MEA-MFT.
“I believe as a state agency, not a foundation, we could probably do that even better,” she said.
Feaver sees this move as more of an optics opportunity for Superintendent Arntzen.
“I think the superintendent wants to stand at the front of the room and pretend to be a teacher leader,” he told MTN.
The winner of the Montana Teacher of the Year goes on to compete nationally and the search for the 2018 top educator is already underway, which will be announced in October by MEA-MFT.
Arntzen hopes MEA-MFT will be a helpful partner in this transition, but Feaver said that will not happen.
“She almost I think expects us to help her take over the program, which we are not going to do,” Feaver said adamantly.