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Articles written by Alex Sakariassen

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  • Montana Supreme Court declares 2021 voting laws unconstitutional

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Apr 3, 2024

    In a highly anticipated ruling last week, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's finding that four laws passed by the 2021 Legislature violate the fundamental rights of voters outlined in the Montana Constitution. The court's 125-page opinion closes out an appeal filed in November 2022 by Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen seeking the reinstatement of laws struck down by a district court judge in Billings. Those laws ended same-day voter registration, enacted new vote...

  • School leaders attribute budget crises to pandemic funding cliff, state funding frustrations

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Mar 13, 2024

    A wave of major budget cuts is hitting public schools across the state - a situation officials from four of Montana's largest districts attribute to declining enrollment, inflexibilities in the state's school funding formula, and a funding cliff facing schools as pandemic-era federal relief money runs out. District leaders from the Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman and Missoula public schools, meeting with reporters in Helena Friday, also said increased property values and the rising cost of living in the state are major factors impacting their...

  • State officials partly restore OPI's contracting authority

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Aug 9, 2023

    Montana’s Department of Administration last week partially restored the Office of Public Instruction’s authority to independently award contracts for third-party goods and services, stating that the agency has made “significant progress” in correcting deficiencies identified earlier this year. The restoration of procurement authority at OPI, which oversees Montana’s K-12 public education system, came on the heels of a second compliance review conducted last month. OPI initially lost its authority to enter into contracts valued above $10,000 i...

  • A $40 million bipartisan measure aimed at driving down health insurance costs for Montana schools becomes law

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Jun 21, 2023

    Under a new law signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, school districts across Montana will begin working on the creation of a statewide insurance trust aimed at driving down the cost of health benefits for teachers, administrators and other public school employees. House Bill 332, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, directs $40 million in one-time funds into establishing that trust, provided that a minimum of 150 school districts with a collective pool of 12,000 employees agree to participate. The bill, which passed the 2023 Legislature with...

  • Secretary of State appeals rulings that struck down new election laws

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Nov 30, 2022

    Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court Tuesday challenging the rulings of a district court judge who overturned four election administration laws passed by the 2021 Legislature. The notice marks the continuation of a legal battle that began in April 2021, just a day after Gov. Greg Gianforte signed two of the bills into law. Three separate lawsuits were eventually consolidated into a single case featuring a coalition of plaintiffs that included... Full story

  • New workgroup is paving the way for more election legislation in 2023

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|May 18, 2022

    State lawmakers, county election administrators and the Montana Association of Counties have established an unpublicized informal workgroup to examine Montana’s current election processes and discuss opportunities to enhance the election system ahead of the next legislative session. The group has met twice to date, most recently in late April, and has grown to include Republican and Democratic legislators from both chambers, as well as a representative from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office and Commissioner of Political Pra...

  • Education Board settles comments on new teacher licensing rules

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|May 4, 2022

    During a special meeting Thursday, the Montana Board of Public Education combed through more than 130 public comments submitted on proposed revisions to state teacher licensing regulations — one of the final steps toward adoption of the changes next month. The process kicked off last June when a 24-member task force began poring over rules surrounding educator certification in the state, including the types of licenses available and the requirements necessary to obtain them. Proposals from the task force then passed to Superintendent of Public...

  • Legislature rejects special session request

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Apr 27, 2022

    An effort to call a special session of the Montana Legislature via lawmaker poll failed to gain majority support last week. According to the results compiled by the Montana Secretary of State’s office after the 5 p.m. deadline, 44 legislators voted for the proposal and 60 voted against it. Forty-five lawmakers did not submit votes. The proposed session would have focused on whether to create a special legislative committee to investigate election security in Montana. Ten Republican legislators submitted the poll request to Secretary of State C...

  • Parental rights advocates come to Arntzen's defense

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Dec 22, 2021

    A pair of public school board trustees from Missoula and Kalispell emailed a letter to state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen Tuesday refuting recent criticisms of her leadership of the Office of Public Instruction and praising her "steadfast support" for local school boards, parents and teachers. The letter, penned by Missoula County Public Schools Trustee Michael Gehl and Smith Valley District 89 Trustee Jim Riley, commended Arntzen, a Republican, for aiding parents in "resisting superintendent...

  • Judge strikes down gun law on campuses

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Dec 8, 2021

    On November 30, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Michael McMahon struck down provisions of Montana's new "constitutional carry" law that apply to college campuses, ruling that the law violates the constitutional authority of the Montana Board of Regents. The board filed the lawsuit against the state in May. In his order, issued shortly after the latest round of oral arguments in the case, McMahon said the Montana Constitution grants the Board of Regents (BOR) sole power to determine...

  • The state of Montana education: State Board of Education examines shared goals and challenges for students across Montana's public K-12 and higher education systems

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Dec 1, 2021

    MISSOULA — Leaders of Montana’s K-12 and higher education systems convened on the University of Montana campus Friday to discuss strategic goals and ongoing challenges to improve the quality of education for students across the state. Addressing an in-person meeting of the State Board of Education, Gov. Greg Gianforte gushed about the scenes he’s witnessed firsthand this year in classrooms from Frenchtown to Glendive. He lauded the passage of a new law in the 2021 Legislature that provides incentives for schools to increase starting teach...

  • Election officials caution against rushed software rollout

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Nov 24, 2021

    County election officials are once again expressing grave concerns about Montana's readiness to transition to a new election software system, even as Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen's office contemplates implementing that transition on Jan. 3, 2022. In letters and emails sent to Jacobsen throughout this fall, a group of election administrators has repeatedly and explicitly said the proposed timeline for making the switch from the current Montana Votes system poses a threat to the integrity o... Full story

  • Supply chain woes land on school lunch trays

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Nov 17, 2021

    Tammy Wham can't get her hands on canned corn or whole grain muffins. Both are staples in the public school kitchen in Ennis, where Wham serves as kitchen manager - or, she quips, "head lunch lady." Wham and her staff serve breakfast and lunch to roughly 340 K-12 students daily, but numerous menu items and ingredients have become difficult or impossible to acquire this fall due to national food shortages and supply chain complications. "I've been here since 2001," said Wham, who also serves as...

  • Public school enrollment shows fall uptick

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Oct 27, 2021

    Last fall and spring, Montana's public school system reported notable declines in student enrollment attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that trend appears to be reversing as K-12 schools across the state have returned to in-person instruction despite the continued presence of the virus. According to preliminary data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, statewide enrollment this fall is at 151,765 students, an increase of 6,133 students, or 4.2%, over fall 2020. The total, which...

  • Montana's stake in the infrastructure plan

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Sep 1, 2021

    Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate approved a $1.2 trillion spending plan aimed at addressing critical national infrastructure needs. The bill is poised to inject billions of dollars into Montana’s highways, bridges, water systems and broadband, and the fate of that funding now rests with the U.S. House of Representatives, which began debating the proposal’s path this week. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester was among the bill’s chief architects, working alongside four other Senate Democrats, five Senate Republicans and top White House aides in close...

  • How to comply with Montana's new vaccine discrimination law

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Aug 11, 2021

    The Montana Department of Labor and Industry this week offered guidance to government agencies and private businesses on how to adhere to a new state law barring discriminating against people on the basis of vaccination status. The agency's guidelines also outline the complaint process for incidents involving such discrimination. "This guidance will help Montana employers and businesses stay in compliance with the law and help ensure that Montanans do not face discrimination due to their...

  • Recommending new rules for schools

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Aug 4, 2021

    Over the past six weeks, two review committees convened by the Montana Office of Public Instruction have begun discussing potential revisions to state regulations governing educator licensure. So far their deliberations have focused on bolstering recruitment and retention in the midst of a teacher shortage and providing a clearer pathway for school counselors to become administrators — all in hopes of removing roadblocks to certifying the people charged with educating Montana’s youth. For OPI and the Board of Public Education, the process is a...

  • OPI reports $29 million in COVID funds already disbursed to schools

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Jul 28, 2021

    HELENA — On Friday, the Montana Office of Public Instruction delivered an update to the state Board of Public Education about the status of federal COVID-19 relief funds for K-12 schools. According to the figures presented by OPI Chief Financial Officer David Williams, Montana has so far expended roughly $29 million of the $593 million allocated through a trio of laws passed by Congress since the onset of the pandemic. The bulk of the relief funding disbursed to schools so far came from the original CARES Act passed in March 2020. Williams i...

  • Montana redistricting commission adopts congressional criteria

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Jul 21, 2021

    HELENA — Montana’s five-member redistricting commission voted earlier this month to formally adopt criteria to guide its work in establishing lines for the state’s new congressional district. A vote on criteria governing how the commission will redraw state legislative boundaries was pushed to this week. The Districting and Apportionment Commission’s votes came after nearly a full day of debate among Democratic and Republican members, with each side pushing its preferred criteria in the face of strong opposition from the other. Those proposa...

  • Union stalwart Ekblad retires

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Jul 7, 2021

    When Al Ekblad woke up on Nov. 4, 2020, his mind immediately turned to the approaching legislative session. Montana voters had just elected a slate of Republican candidates to statewide offices - candidates the AFL-CIO, with Ekblad as executive secretary, had actively messaged against - by wider margins than pollsters had predicted. Republican supermajorities consolidated power in the statehouse. Election night was "pretty eye-opening," Ekblad said, and he emerged from it knowing that another...

  • OPI asks feds to approve COVID relief spending

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Jun 16, 2021

    HELENA - The Montana Office of Public Instruction submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Education Tuesday outlining how it intends to spend $382 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds. The plan reflects more than a month of legislative debate this spring over the allocation of money from the American Rescue Plan Act. Lawmakers ultimately approved an ARPA spending plan, House Bill 632, in April, that identified learning loss and enrollment-induced budget gaps as key funding priorities....

  • Taking control: City and county leaders statewide are struggling to come to terms with rollbacks of municipal authority

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Jun 9, 2021

    After months of legislative debate, Montanans are beginning to glimpse how new laws passed by the 67th Legislature are poised to impact their lives. For county and municipal leaders, those impacts amount to a notable reduction in their ability to respond at a local level on a range of issues including public health, affordable housing and agricultural sustainability. One of the highest-profile examples of a major change local officials now have to contend with is House Bill 121, which requires that any rules or regulations proposed by local hea...

  • Regents will take constitutional carry to court

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|May 26, 2021

    The Montana Board of Regents announced last week it will push for a judicial review of the state's new "constitutional carry" law, which is poised to allow students and university staff to carry concealed weapons on campuses across Montana beginning June 1. The regents were expected next week to review an implementation strategy for House Bill 102 developed by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. But after a weeks-long effort to gather public feedback, the regents met virtually We... Full story

  • Arntzen's State of Education address: Superintendent of Public Instruction highlights legislative priorities including special education funding and at-risk students

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Feb 17, 2021

    Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen highlighted several legislative priorities for the state's public schools Thursday, including a push to offer increased funding security for special needs students in Montana. Arntzen's statements came during a formal State of Education address forecasting the road ahead in 2021 for an education system still contending with the challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back to this time last year, Arntzen said, there's much that...

  • Public lands: promises and peril

    Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press|Dec 2, 2020

    Throughout 2020, political contenders of all stripes made the same straightforward promise, one that's now as familiar to Montana voters as spring runoff or November snowstorms: to be a champion for public lands. This election-year refrain arrived in the form of television ads, campaign mailers and stump speeches. It drove debate responses, spawned attacks and spurred outside groups to sift through voting records in an attempt to glean how sincere the promise might or might not be. Now, with a...

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