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Arntzen, Leatherbarrow and Romano square off in state superintendent race: Melissa Romano

The Montana superintendent of public instruction race sees Democrat Melissa Romano facing incumbent Republican Elsie Arntzen in a rematch of the 2016 election, with Libertarian Kevin Leatherbarrow challenging both in this year's race.

Romano said the position is of crucial importance.

"The state superintendent has general oversight of all the K-12 schools in Montana," Romano said. "They serve on the Board of Education as a non-voting member, and so there is an opportunity to be a real thoughtful and working partner with the Board of Ed to further public education in Montana."

She said, from her standpoint, the superintendent should be providing a mission and vision for K-12 schools across Montana.

This mission and vision includes being a really strong advocate especially at the Legislature in showing up and working to protect and promote public education in Montana, she said.

The biggest change she would like to see in the superintendent's office, she said, is having someone who is actually going to show up and be a leader.

"I think for the last three and a half years under Superintendent Arntzen, there has been just a real lack of leadership at the office public instruction as well as just a lot of mismanagement at the office," Romano said. "I think it's absolutely vital that we have a leader at that office and that includes a leader who is going to work to protect and promote public education. The superintendent is the top education voice for Montana, so they should be a very strong and very vocal advocate for public schools and that hasn't been the case."

She said she thinks the state needs a leader who is going to show up at the Legislature and advocate for K-12 schools, especially when it comes to funding.

She added that one of the things she is interested in is public preschool and giving parents an opportunity as an option to enroll in public preschool.

Montana is one of few states that does not offer a public preschool experience for the 4 year olds, she said.

"I'm a former kindergarten teacher myself, and so I have seen firsthand what it is like when kids come to school and they are ready to learn, and then I've seen the exact opposite when kids come to school and they have never even held a pair of scissors or a pencil before," Romano said. "So, I really think that it's time Montana invest in its young learners and there's so much research there that shows when we are investing in our young learners not only is it an immediate benefit for one: the 4-year-old, but it is also a benefit for that family - they have a safe place for that child to go and learn while the family can go to work."

She said long-term benefits can occur into the future for the child.

When a student has a quality preschool experience they are more likely to be reading on grade level in their grade, she said, adding that the student is more likely to graduate high school on time and the student is more likely to earn more money in their lifetime.

"(It's) not just an immediate benefit, but there is long-term benefits for our economy in Montana and so public preschool is something I'm going to be working hard for and fighting for on Day One," Romano said.

Montana has a teacher recruitment and retention challenge, she said, and she sees that a big challenge in the state.

She said she wants all children, all students in Montana to have a qualified teacher in the classroom teaching them.

"Again, it's why leadership in this office is so important - we need somebody who is going to go to the Legislature and advocate for bills that are actually going to bring teachers to Montana and keep our teachers here," Romano said. "Under Superintendent Arntzen, one of the things that went away under her lack of leadership is the student loan repayment. That would be so beneficial to retaining teachers in Montana and some other student loan debt was decreased, so I was really disappointed to see that happen under her lack of leadership. Teacher recruitment and retention is a big challenge, but also mental health is a big issue that is facing so many Montana families right now, especially in our schools with our students and our teachers."

She said she is interested in taking a real hard look at what the state can do to provide some mental health support in the schools.

For her, that means taking a look at what the social, emotional learning standards needed in Montana, she said, adding that to also be committed to that conversation and working with the Board of Education to take a look at those standards.

"I think it would go a long way in providing mental health support, but it also provides lifelong skills that we want students to possess to be successful later on with jobs - things like problem solving, goal setting, managing your emotions, being able to be self-aware and socially aware, so those are really important skills that we want students to invest moving forward," Romano said. 

"I do think my experience in the classroom makes me extremely qualified for this position," she added. "I think Montanans want somebody who truly understands the day-to-day challenges that are happening in our schools."

The requirement for the Montana state superintendent is that they are a certified teacher, she said, adding that she thinks that is very wise because the state wants somebody who is in this position who truly understands what is going on in schools and is ready to move the state forward in terms of education.

"My experience in the classroom of 17 years of teaching makes me qualified; I am Montana's 2018 Teacher of the Year, and I am also the 2012 recipient of the presidential award for excellence in math and science teaching," Romano said. "Beyond those accomplishments, I've served on lots of local, state and even national committees to move education in a positive direction, and I think all of that work makes me an exceptionally great candidate for superintendent."

Safety is a No. 1 priority to her in keeping the students, teachers, staff and everyone in the school community safe, she said.

She said she was disappointed that Arntzen seemed to be upset that Gov. Steve Bullock gave school districts an extra $75 million for COVID-19.

From her perspective, Romano said, that was so needed and in this time it costs more to educate children not less.

"We need a leader who is going to be in that office and advocating for funds, and who really has a pulse of, yeah, it's going to cost more to educate children, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer station, more busing, all of those things are really costly," she said. "So I was disappointed that she seemed to be complaining about that, and it's then frustrating, from my perspective, watching our state superintendent continue to travel around the state without a mask, and kind of question the mask mandate. I think as somebody who really values science and science teaching we know what works and wearing a mask helps keep students safe and so that is a priority for me - keeping students safe."

In terms of what she would've done differently in re-opening schools, she said, she would've been a leader from Day One.

Arntzen complained she wasn't kept in the loop of decisions and it's hard for her to know whether that's true or not, Romano said.

"I have questioned it many times, if she feels like she wasn't included why would that be and maybe it's because she hasn't been a leader from Day One," she said. "I don't know, I can only speculate, but I think before COVID even happened having a strong leader would be really beneficial, so that when an emergency happened like COVID school districts across Montana would know who they can count on and where they can turn, and I'm just not sure that was the case this past spring."

The Governor's Office said in late July that it had been in contact with Office of Public Instruction almost daily in discussions about COVID-19, and offered Arntzen weekly conferences.

She added that she thinks that the public's tax dollars should be going to public schools.

She will always stand up against schemes to defund public education, she said, and when taxpayer dollars are being diverted away from public schools and children that need it the most she said she thinks that it is absolutely wrong.

"I'm going to work on Day One to continue to protect and to promote the great public education system we have in Montana," Romano said.

The superintendent of public instruction also has a seat on the State Land Board, she said, which is a really important position to her.

She said she has four children and her, and her husband depend and uses the state's public lands.

It is where they vacation, it is where they go to take a break from the stress of every day life, she added.

"I think it's really important that we have somebody on the Land Board who is going to protect our public lands and my position on the Land Board I plan to be reasonable and responsible because I do want to maximize revenue for our schools, but I also want to make sure that those public lands are around for future generations," Romano said.


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