HELENA — While a lawsuit challenging a new state charter school program is still making its way through the courts, the commission that manages that program has been allowed to begin its work. That commission held its first meeting at the State Capitol in Helena on Monday.
The Community Choice Schools Commission’s first big step was to adopt the bylaws they’ll operate under from now on.
“It was the first order of business, because, having bylaws, now we exist as an agency here in Montana,” said Trish Schreiber, the commission’s chair. “Now as we discussed during the meeting, we can go forward and vote in officers and then build a standing committee of the executive committee, and then eventually develop other committees for the various activities we're going to have.”
Schreiber, an educational therapist from Helmville, was appointed chair by Gov. Greg Gianforte. On Monday, she opened the meeting by reiterating what she believed could be the value of community choice schools.
“Every student I've ever worked with has needed something different, some type of variation to fully engage in learning,” she said. “And what I've learned from that experience is that no single school can be all things to everyone.”
Community choice schools, as established in House Bill 562 earlier this year, would be exempted from a number of requirements that traditional public schools must follow, like teacher certification requirements. Schools would be operated by governing boards, eventually elected by parents and guardians of the students attending.
Public education organizations and other advocates have sued over HB 562, arguing the choice schools would essentially be “privatized” and part of a “separate and unequal” education system. They claim the law would undermine the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of a quality public education.
Last month, District Judge Chris Abbott, of Helena, put a limited preliminary injunction on the law, prohibiting the commission from authorizing any choice schools or allowing school districts to authorize any. However, he did allow them to hold meetings, adopt bylaws and start working on policies.
On Monday, two representatives from the Montana Department of Justice briefly addressed the commission on what they are and are not allowed to do. During that discussion, Assistant Attorney General Thane Johnson recommended the commission look at making additions to its bylaws in order to address some of the issues raised in the legal action.
“Judge Abbott kind of pointed to what he was concerned about, and those things can be cured in the bylaw drafting,” he said.
Schreiber told MTN after the meeting that she didn’t think the bylaws were the right place to address those concerns, but she appreciated the idea.
“I think the policies that we'll be developing going forward will fill in some of those blanks that the lawyers would like to see filled in,” she said.
Schreiber said she believed there have been “false narratives” around choice schools in the discussions over HB 562, and she hoped the commission would be able to address some of the apprehension people may have about the program through their work in the coming months.
“There's just a lot to learn and a lot to clarify, and so we're really looking forward to doing that,” she said. “The more people that come to the meetings and or watch it on MPAN afterwards, the more informed people we’ll have here in Montana. And we hope people will also suggest speakers that they maybe want us to have in or discussions that they want us to have, because we should be representing the people of Montana, and we can't do that unless they come and have their say.”
Currently, five of the seven seats on the commission are filled. Two of the initial members – Gary Carlson and Emily Hessler – ended up not taking their seats. Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who appointed Carlson, said in a release that she had chosen Jon Rutt, a small business owner and consultant from Laurel, to fill his position. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, told MTN he is still working on a replacement for Hessler.
The new members are likely to be seated in time for the commission’s next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 1.
Schreiber said, regardless of the lawsuit, there’s still a lot of work the commission can get done. She said, in other states with similar commissions, it’s generally taken a year and a half to two years for them to get fully up and running – so Montana is still a long way from authorizing a choice school.
“We're not rushed,” she said. “And, you know, not that it's a good thing we have a lawsuit, but the lawsuit, in fact, slows us down so that we can really focus on those policies and make sure that they're the right ones for Montana.”