Amid a chorus of boos and shout-downs, there were few brave souls that dare to express opinions unpopular to the summonsed mob. In one sentence, that was my overall impression of the recent meeting organized by Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) Director Elsie Arntzen, intended to give parents and other member of the public a voice with OPI and local legislators.
I was alerted to the potential for this to be a contentious meeting through an email forwarded to me.
The email from the Cascade County Democratic Central Committee alerted folks to come to a public meeting on December 19 at Great Falls College MSU with Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) Director Elsie Arntzen. It piqued my interest. I found there was much more to the email than a dismissive glance would reveal (see attached).
It appears Great Falls Public School Superintendent Moore originated the communication by sending an email to Great Falls Rising, who then forwarded it to the Cascade County Republican Central Committee, who sent it via Mail Chimp to their mailing list.
In Moore’s portion of the email, he appears to allude to not receiving notification about Arntzen’s meeting and urges his “partners” to attend. Moore wrote:
“Good afternoon, Partners!
I received this (notice of meeting) from Rob Watson, School Administrators of Montana Exec. Director this morning. I had a phone call yesterday from Dr. Stephanie Erdmann, Dean @GFC-MSU, informing me that OPI had called and asked to reserve a room at Heritage Hall on Monday Dec. 19 from 4-6:30 PM. I had heard on Wednesday that the Supt. of Kalispell Schools caught wind of a similar meeting in his area.
Last night I called and spoke with Supt. Arntzen and she informed me that she will be holding four of these seasons in specific areas around the state, Kalispell, Billings, Great Falls and Stevensville. None of the Superintendents have received personal invitations to attend, nor have they been asked to help facilitate these forums. According to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, these sessions are designed to engage our parents and newly elected legislators in discussing issues of mutual interest prior to the upcoming legislative session.
My suggestion is that we all plan on being there and encouraging ALL of our parent, business and community partners to attend and let the elected officials know what our priorities are for our children and our schools here in Great Falls…”
Moore’s use of the phase, “caught wind of a similar meeting” semantically implies that the OPI kept this meeting a secret from him and other superintendents.
Not true according to Arntzen, who stated at the meeting that superintendents were made aware of it. An OPI staff member whom I talked with after the meeting concurred.
I also noticed that in his email he states he didn’t receive a “personal invitation.” I call those “wiggle words.” He may have indeed been alerted to the meeting but wasn’t “personally” invited by Arntzen. For Moore to receive a “personal invitation” or “be asked to facilitate” this meeting were unreasonable expectations in my opinion. The meeting was meant as an opportunity for parents and community members to express their thoughts directly to the OPI and legislators. No additional parties were necessary to run the meeting.
In the next step “Gerry,” apparently from Great Falls Rising, forwarded Moore’s message to the Cascade County Democratic Central Committee after adding the following commentary:
“Please read the following from Tom Moore, Superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools, about a forum, organized by Elsie Arntzen, Monday, September 19th from 4:00 to 6:30 PM in Heritage Hall at Great Falls College MSU. This is an invitation that was not issued to the superintendents around Montana and was discovered only by hearsay. The Director of OPI has not been forthcoming about her plans for reorganizing education in Montana. It is imperative that residents of Great Falls who are interested in continuing with our excellent education in Great Falls are present at this meeting. We know that she is inviting her supporters…”
As you can see, Gerry claims Moore only learned of this meeting through “hearsay” and seems to infer that Arntzen is inviting primarily her supporters. It’s also interesting that Great Falls Rising, despite calling themselves a “nonpartisan” organization, appears to have spread information about the meeting to only one side of the aisle. They forwarded it to the Democratic Central Committee but I’m not aware that they sent it to any Republican group. I’m on the Republican Central Committee mailing list but didn’t receive this email through them. It pretty much disproves Great Falls Rising’s claim of nonpartisanship if they share information with only one party’s central committee.
Did Moore pass this information along to those he knew would not be critical of Great Falls Public Schools administration— his so-called “partners?” He ignored arguably the most important group of people for this meeting—school district parents as a whole. Shouldn’t ALL of the parents with children in Great Falls Public Schools be his “partners?” If he really cared about what parents want for their children, wouldn’t he have sent out a district-side message and invite all parents?
Instead, Moore’s call-to-action email to his “partners” brought mostly former and current educators, school administrators and leftist leaders, who overwhelmingly dominated the meeting. Any comment they disagreed with was met rudely with loud boos and shout downs—mob behavior.
Here are just two examples of comments that triggered them:
“School choice/money should follow the student…”
“Teachers aren’t paid enough/cut administration to pay teachers more…”
The behavior of Moore’s summonsed bunch was alarming and likely intimidated some folks from speaking. The meeting also seemed to devolve into a bitch session for that same bunch to express their hostility to Arntzen.
One of the criticisms/questions that kept coming up was whether Moore had received notice of the meeting. It was a criticism by those who believed the narrative put forth in the email and a question for the few that didn’t automatically assume that narrative was correct.
As I stated earlier, Arntzen asserted at the meeting that she did let Moore and other superintendents know about these meetings, which were being held in different locations around the state. On the other hand, when questioned, Moore failed to confirm or deny whether he’d actually received notice of the meeting. When asked, he made a comment that he wasn’t going to address whether or not he received notice and promptly changed the subject.
I found that to be quite evasive, especially since it was a major part of the narrative put forth in the email. So I reminded everyone that Moore never answered that question.
Moore approached me after the event and I was surprised when he ask me if he had answered my question. I told him that he had not. I also let him know I had seen the message he sent to so-called “partners” and asked, “Who were these partners?” He answered, “I sent an email to Great Falls Chamber, Yes to Education and the education advocacy group Great Falls Rising.” By the way, his words, not mine, categorizing Great Falls Rising as an “education advocacy group.” I would beg to differ.
I don’t know about you, but when someone won’t give a straight yes or no answer and instead, deflects questions and redirects to another topic, it makes me uneasy and suspicious. I subsequently told Moore, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen him evade and avoid answering questions.
This meeting, which Arntzen had told Moore was meant to engage parents and taxpayers with the OPI and legislators, was hijacked in my opinion. I’m aware of an OPI meeting in another Montana community where the voices of the public were heard loud and clear. Sadly in Great Falls, the public was mostly silenced. Those involved in public education in Great Falls have their own meetings and channels of communication with Arntzen and her staff. Why won’t they allow the public theirs without interference?
A picture emerged from my attendance at this meeting and it isn’t a pretty one— the picture that far too many of the summonsed bunch that attended don’t want parents and taxpayers to have a voice with OPI and legislators in a public forum— at least not a voice that they can’t control.