Welch: Schools Deserve Better Support from OPI

Note:  The following opinion was submitted to The Western Word by Sandy Welch, Republican Candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Welch’s contact information and campaign website are listed at the end of the column.

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Schools Deserve Better Support from Office of Public Instruction

Few things are more important to a community than well-run and locally controlled schools.  Virtually all school districts, along with teachers, parents, and community leaders, strive to provide the education and training our children deserve with less money than in times past.  While local communities band together, however, State Superintendent Denise Juneau and the Office of Public Instruction have proven themselves to be unreliable partners.

Building a new school is no small decision.  Responsible and engaged communities rightly consider whether a new building is necessary and financially justified.  Until recently, schools have benefitted from a longstanding practice enabling greater flexibility to direct budgets to areas of local concern.  A little over a year ago, Denise Juneau’s staff formally confirmed this practice and school districts took them at their word.  Now, after years of planning and consideration, local schools learn that the Office of Public Instruction has informed the Attorney General this practice, the very practice they advocated as recently as last school year, is illegal.

This level of chaos for our schools cannot be tolerated.  The Montana School Boards Association and Montana Rural Education Association summarize the situation with the following words of caution: “relying upon opinions issued by OPI and acting in reliance upon such advice only to find that there are fundamental disagreements among OPI staff could very well place your district in jeopardy”.

As Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will provide schools across Montana with a stable and predictable set of rules and guidelines.  Consistency in application and an emphasis on local control of public education will be provided.  The Office of Public Instruction will be a partner and resource for our schools.  It will work to strengthen our education system based on local needs and goals.

With over two decades working in public education, I understand the importance of making policy changes in collaboration with local stakeholders across the state in order to reduce negative unintended consequences.  Education and community leaders must be able to rely on official opinion from the Office of Public Instruction in order to set plans that make the most use of tight budgets and best serve students now and in the future.

Montana is home to great diversity of schools, most of which do well but need greater decision making power at the local level.  In my administration, our schools will be able to rely on the Office of Public Instruction to further their plans by encouraging local control, best practices, and consistent access to resources.

Sandy Welch

Republican Candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction