Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) A coalition of Montana superintendents and education-centered organizations sued Montana’s superintendent of public instruction and the Office of Public Instruction for “usurping power” in attempting to place additional steps for starting charter schools.

The lawsuit filed Thursday said Superintendent Elsie Arnzten violated a law passed in 2023 where the legislature granted the Board of Public Education the exclusive power to approve charter schools, and it said delays from actions by the Office of Public Instruction may impact school budgets with looming deadlines.

But Arntzen argued in a statement Friday she’s being “attacked” by a “politically motivated” group.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition brought the lawsuit, with members including the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana School Boards Association, School Administrators of Montana, among other education organizations, and more than 100 school districts in the state of Montana. Arnzten and OPI were listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court, marks the latest in a series of rebukes against Arntzen, with the Board of Public Education voting unanimously to send her department a letter Monday bucking the Office of Public Instruction’s extra requirements for charter schools and asking the department to complete internal tasks for the process to continue.

Legislators – many of whom are Republicans like Arntzen – in an interim budget committee earlier this month voted 6-2 to send her office a letter which scolded Arntzen for not implementing bills passed in the 2023 legislature on charter schools, Indian Education for All, early literacy and data modernization.

Plaintiffs are requesting the court stop Arntzen from imposing the additional requirements for charter schools and order the department complete the administrative tasks necessary for charter schools to open by July – like assigning school codes and distributing funding. Earlier this year, the board unanimously approved 19 charter schools, of which 18 are slated to be operational on July 1.

During Monday’s board meeting, Arntzen said she views charter schools as public schools, and therefore they should follow the same process for implementation – which would mean the school would now also need approval from county commissioners and add months of time to the process.

The lawsuit said this new requirement would put charter schools in the “untenable position of facing county commissioner disapproval” even though they received board approval through the process outlined in legislation.

The Office of Public Instruction published guidance last month for implementing charter schools, which said once charter schools are approved by the board, the department – not the board – is responsible for the oversight of the educational functions of the new school.

The lawsuit says this transfer of power to the department goes against the law – which defines both charter schools and non-charter schools and the separate processes for starting them and oversight.

Arntzen said in a statement in response to the lawsuit she will not participate in “childish rhetoric.”

“As a constitutional conservative, I am being attacked because I have stood up for Montana parents, families, and taxpayers, not special interests. This is politically motivated from a bureaucratic group that is funded by taxpayer dollars with no accountability,” Arntzen said in a statement. “While this group wastes time and Montanan’s money suing my office, I will continue to focus on delivering results for our Montana students.”

Arntzen, who is termed out as superintendent, is running in the eastern congressional Republican primary.

The lawsuit said the guidance published by the Office of Public Instruction indicated the new guidelines would add four months to the approval process for public charter schools approved by the board.

The delays could impact school budgets as deadlines loom, the lawsuit said – with school boards having to publish an estimate for next year’s budget by Sunday and adopt it by August. There’s also an April deadline to finalize ballot language for levies.

With the guidance being put out in February, the lawsuit argues that a district that followed the guidance could not know whether its charter school has been approved until late June, after the “deadlines for estimating increased taxes, finalizing ballots and the conduct of school levy elections themselves have all since passed.”

“Defendants’ actions violate the newly enacted laws and unjustifiably delay recognition of approved charter schools, leading to irreparable harm to constitutionally empowered school boards attempting to set their budgets and serve students by opening new charter schools in 2024 as authorized by the constitutionally empowered BPE (Board of Public Education),” the lawsuit read.

The lawsuit noted multiple groups including the board, legislators on the interim committee and the bill’s sponsor are in alignment with their legal interpretation surrounding the board’s authority over charter schools.