School district-run charter schools moving forward in Montana after lawsuit

Lewis and Clark County Courthouse
Posted at 6:50 PM, May 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-13 20:50:29-04

HELENA — State leaders say more than a dozen new charter schools operated by school districts across Montana are on track to complete their setup process, after questions about the procedure that eventually led to a lawsuit.

In January, the Montana Board of Public Education gave the go-ahead for 19 proposed district-run charter schools – the first round of approvals under House Bill 549, one of two charter school bills that became law after the 2023 legislative session.

After the board’s decision, the Montana Office of Public Instruction came out with guidance for what districts needed to do to officially start their charters. As part of that, OPI argued districts would need to go through some additional steps that other new schools must take before opening, including submitting estimated attendance numbers, getting a petition from parents and getting approval from county commissioners.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition – which includes organizations like the Montana School Boards Association and Montana Federation of Public Employees, as well as more than 100 school districts – filed suit against Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, claiming the process OPI laid out “impedes the timely and smooth opening of public charter schools in the coming fiscal year.” They argued these additional requirements weren’t intended to apply to charter schools and could create uncertainty and delay funding for districts.

OPI argued that HB 549 didn’t exempt charter schools from the requirements for school opening. They said in a filing that they supported the opening of the charter schools but were simply trying to follow state law.

Last month, District Judge Michael McMahon granted a partial preliminary injunction. In it, he said the Board of Public Education and OPI both seem to have authority in this area. He ruled OPI could require districts to submit their attendance numbers before declaring a charter school officially “open” and finalizing its funding, but he temporarily blocked the requirements for a petition and county commission approval.

“It is in the public interest to favor an interpretation which does not have a chance of irrevocably derailing the opening of public charter schools, over an interpretation which may unnecessarily prevent the opening of properly established public charter schools,” McMahon said in his ruling.

Last week, the two sides filed a motion, agreeing OPI’s procedure for opening charter schools was now complying with the judge’s order and allowing them to launch in time for the 2024 school year. They said, with the injunction remaining in place, the rest of the case could therefore be dismissed. McMahon approved that motion Friday.

On Monday, OPI told MTN nine of the approved charter schools had fully completed their setup – three in Billings, two in Corvallis, one in Frenchtown, one in Great Falls and two in Missoula. They said six more – one in Hamilton, three in Helena and two in Kalispell – are officially “open” and should receive their final budget data from OPI in the next day or two.

OPI said they’re still working with one school to complete all the needed information, two others haven’t yet submitted their information, and the last school has decided to delay opening until the 2025 school year.

Dan Rispens, superintendent of East Helena Public Schools, said his district will be working this week to get their information turned in for their planned 227 Academy charter. He said they’ve been delayed as administrators deal with the aftermath of extensive vandalism at two of their schools.

Erik Wilkerson, superintendent of the Jefferson High School District, said they are planning to delay opening their Jefferson Academy, focused on serving students at Youth Dynamics’ residential treatment facilities in Boulder. He said they don’t believe they can get the number of students they had expected in the 2024 school year.

The other district planning charters is Bozeman, which was approved for two.

This lawsuit is only one of several MQEC has filed, challenging school-choice related laws from the 2023 legislative session. A judge has temporarily blocked part of House Bill 562, which set up a “community choice” charter school system that was more independent of existing public schools. Because of that, the commission created in that law cannot yet authorize choice schools.

In addition, MQEC and Disability Rights Montana have challenged House Bill 393, which would set up “education savings accounts” for students with special needs, that their families could use for a wide variety of educational expenses. The plaintiffs argued that law could divert a significant amount of money away from school districts.