Those are the only words that readily come to mind to describe Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tammy Lacey’s tirade against the recently elected, Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elsie Arntzen. According to the Tribune, Lacey “asked the superintendent whether she had plans to publicly fund preschool for the less fortunate children in the state, unlike Arntzen’s own granddaughter who is lucky to ‘have a full tummy every day.'” Aside from the gratuitous cheap shot against Arntzen’s family–discussed below–the bigger issue here is whether this is a legitimate complaint. (Wait, what? Did she just use the word “tummy” in a professional meeting? Or, maybe, she was just being condescending…)
Did you know that the Great Falls Public Schools operates a preschool? We do not doubt that somewhere in our State and Local District’s significant budgets there is money for early childhood care, probably from the federal government. But if you review the statutes governing the Office of Public Instruction, you will, we think, agree that the primary duties relate to schools and students. Likewise, the duties granted district superintendents focus on “pupils,” which are defined as “enrolled in school.” Under such circumstances, we should be able to agree first that there might be different priorities, and second that our newly elected State Superintendent is not deserving of a public shaming simply because the focus of her efforts might be, oh, on the students in the schools, rather than students in preschool who, by definition are not in school yet. Perhaps Lacey and her administrators might focus first on scholastic success and, when every student that graduates from GFPS marks a 36 on his or her ACT, then they can save the world with our money. Or, better yet, how about when every student graduates?
Oh, we know, we know. If students are hungry, they can’t learn. If kids are hungry before they are even school aged, they’ll be set back. OK, that’s Lacey’s priority. But it might not be everyone’s priority. And, by that logic, maybe the GFPS should get a levy for some programs dealing with prenatal care? Because you know, without prenatal care, kids are less likely to be born healthy. If not born healthy, they won’t develop as well, and won’t be ready to learn when they hit kindergarten. You know, maybe there’s an even better idea. Maybe GFPS can fund family planning services so potential moms who are likely to have bad prenatal care won’t get pregnant in the first place?
Or, maybe, like Arntzen suggests, we can make the actual students in the schools a higher priority? Seriously, have these highly-educated educators never studied the concept of scarcity? Because they’re supposed to be teaching our kids about it in high school.
Look, we get it. There are needy families in Great Falls. They need help and there is some help available. We have a whole state department, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, whose job it is to feed the hungry. Why isn’t Lacey drilling the head of that Department about needy families? Frankly, one could make a reasonable argument that all food programs for needy families should be shifted under the umbrella of the Office of Public Instruction. Schools already have contact with the vast majority of these families, and already have a bureaucracy in place. If Lacey was really looking for an outside the box solution, that might be one.
But Lacey’s theatrics weren’t about solutions. This little ‘show’ was all about virtue signaling.
To take a cheap, personal shot in a public forum was simply unprofessional pandering to the audience. (2-1 Lacey runs for OPI superintendent.) Did Arntzen deserve the cheap shot because her family must be able to feed its children? Is Lacey starving? Should the rest of us who pay our taxes and, therefore, Lacey’s salary, be publicly shamed because our families aren’t starving and we disagree with her? Maybe Lacey should remember that these same taxpayers elected Arntzen.
We’ve seen some pretty unprofessional displays in our time–Mayor Stebbins comes to mind–but Lacey’s stunt demonstrates misplaced priorities. Feeding non-student, preschool kids is just one possible goal out of many, many goals for our OPI. Maybe it’s Lacey’s priority, but that does not mean anyone who has different priorities within the universe of choices is evil, or deserves a public flogging. Lacey should be figuring out ways to work with Arntzen to achieve her ends, not trying to undermine her in search of cheap political points with her audience of administrators.