Olivia DeJohn laughs as she chalks up having found a classroom she loves so early in her teaching career to serendipity. She teaches second grade at Missoula’s Paxson Elementary School, a job she quips “fell into my lap.” She did her student teaching at Paxson while getting her master’s degree at the University of Montana and, as a result, was asked to serve as a long-term substitute for an educator who had to go on leave. 

“Originally when I heard second grade, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not what I want. They’re so young. I don’t know if I can do that,’” she recalled in a recent interview. “Now I never want to do anything else, because second grade is actually amazing.”

“We do get applicants and people do want to work here, but the housing prices have turned people away. It’s happened at least three times I can think of.”

Paxson Elementary teacher Olivia DeJohn

This fall marks DeJohn’s third full year on Paxson’s staff. The work falls in line with what drew her to the profession in the first place — a desire to “do some kind of public good” — and from day one the pay was better than anything she’d been accustomed to in the past. She’s quick to acknowledge that she doesn’t spend much in her personal life. She doesn’t have children, so she doesn’t have to budget for daycare. She rides her bike in town instead of driving, so she hasn’t had to contend with the recent spike in gas prices. But even with the higher starting wage her master’s degree netted her, a teacher’s salary begins to sound low when she thinks about renting a place of her own. DeJohn, 31, currently lives with two roommates.

“I’d have to spend literally half a month’s salary on that,” DeJohn said. “Or if I look at buying a house, then a mortgage payment would be more than that.”

Teacher pay has routinely surfaced as one of the primary challenges Montana schools face in recruiting and retaining educators. The issue speaks not only to the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, but to the increasing financial pressures on Montanans of all walks of life. Housing costs in many parts of Montana, including Bozeman, Missoula and Kalispell, have skyrocketed in recent years, and a poll conducted this spring found that 77% of Montana respondents considered lack of affordable housing an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem.

Exacerbating the problem of living expenses is the issue of income. According to the National Education Association’s latest data, Montana’s average starting teacher salary during the 2020-21 school year was $32,495 — the lowest in the country. 

Dana Holland has taught at Bozeman High School for six years. Her district is doing “a lot of things right,” she said, and she counts herself lucky to live in a dual-income household, which has helped alleviate some of the financial pressures of juggling a modest paycheck and rising prices. But the increased cost of housing in the Gallatin valley has proved a deterrent for some prospective hires. The district is already spending roughly 90% of its budget on employee pay, she said, and still she’s aware of several instances where applicants interested in the district have changed their minds at the last minute.

“We do get applicants and people do want to work here, but the housing prices have turned people away, Holland said. “It’s happened at least three times I can think of.”

“Teachers are having to choose between moving into a different profession, which is probably going to be less stress and less work on them for more money, or staying in the profession and foregoing buying a new car or getting the house with a bigger bedroom, growing their family or saving for their retirement or for their kid’s college.”

Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis

In short, the cost of living is rising dramatically, and salaries aren’t keeping up. This is Montana’s version of a national problem. In a poll of its members conducted earlier this year, the National Education Association found that 55% of respondents were considering leaving the teaching profession in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization cited low pay as one of the primary factors impacting educator retention across the country, along with stress and the increased politicization of public education.

“Teachers are having to choose between moving into a different profession, which is probably going to be less stress and less work on them for more money, or staying in the profession and foregoing buying a new car or getting the house with a bigger bedroom, growing their family or saving for their retirement or for their kid’s college,” Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis said. “That’s not a position any of our teachers should ever be in in the state of Montana.”

SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS

Financial strain is hardly a new phenomenon for Montana teachers. Individual schools and districts have long been aware of the concern, and some have taken specific steps to address it. The Big Sky School District broke ground on new rental housing for teachers in 2019, and finished construction of one of those units last year. Districts in Cut Bank, Bozeman and elsewhere have found space in their budgets to offer signing bonuses for new hires, while Missoula County Public Schools recently upped hourly pay for substitute teachers from $12.50 to $14.50.

At the state level, Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton said recent legislative sessions have produced considerable investments toward teacher loan repayment. Teachers taking jobs in the state’s smaller districts can net a “pretty sizable amount” of public funding to pay down the costs of their education — as much as $4,000 per year for their first three years — Melton said. 

“That’s a fairly significant improvement designed to get somebody to come in early in their career,” Melton said. “And generally speaking, once people start working for our schools, they really like to continue to work for them.”

One of the highest-profile efforts to move the needle on teacher pay statewide came during the 2021 Montana Legislature. House Bill 143, dubbed the “TEACH Act,” sought to incentivize local increases to starting teacher salaries by offering districts additional state funding to offset the expense. For most districts in the state, that meant raising their base teacher salary to $34,720 in order to qualify for an extra $3,472 state payment for each first-, second- and third-year teacher. For the state’s seven largest districts, qualifying for the incentive required raising base teacher pay to 70% of the district’s average educator salary.

HB 143 passed through the Legislature with only two opposing votes — both in the House — and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte on March 5, 2021.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction did not respond to multiple requests last month for information about how many districts have so far qualified for the incentive, or for an interview with Superintendent Elsie Arntzen about the issue of teacher pay. But according to information compiled by MFPE analyst Sarah Piper and shared with Montana Free Press, 16 school districts had raised their starting teacher pay to meet HB 143’s threshold as of May 2022. Forty-two districts qualified for the extra payments without having to raise their base salaries, and an additional nine districts qualified purely by following “their typical salary trend.” MFPE’s analysis concluded roughly 57% of Montana school districts did not qualify for the TEACH Act incentives and are still paying a starting wage below $33,850 as of this school year.

Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association, said he hasn’t heard much from smaller districts about the incentive this summer, but that “quite a few” succeeded in qualifying in the months after the bill’s passage.

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“They took action relatively quickly,” Parman said. “It was an easy decision for them to make, but it just all revolved around whether or not they had the budgetary capacity to do that.”

Melton said a district’s ability to meet the new law’s benchmarks was largely dependent on circumstance. For those with smaller pay gaps to close in order to qualify, the situation was “pretty easy.” But for districts with lower starting salaries, the extra funding from the state might not have covered the cost of qualifying.

“I could understand why a district would say, ‘Well, you know, I’ve got five staff that would qualify, but collectively, at $5,000 apiece below the target, that’s $25,000, and I’m only going to get $15,000 if I bring them up,” said Melton, who helped draft HB 143. “I’ve got to find that other $10,000 and I’ve got to be able to bargain that out with the teachers in the district.”

For individual teachers who did benefit from their districts taking advantage of the added state funding, Curtis said it “made a big impact.” Any increase in pay for someone who can’t otherwise afford housing or other necessary expenses is a big deal, she continued. At a larger scale, though, Curtis said the success of HB 143 so far has been “negligible” in terms of the percentage of teachers and districts impacted.

“The bill said if you pay teachers more, then you’ll get more money. But how can the schools pay teachers more if the schools don’t have the money to pay the teachers?” she added. “So it’s really an equitable school funding issue, and there are so many other ways to get at pay for teachers or for school employees.”

THE TEACHER PAY HORIZON

As the 2022 fall semester opened this week, news reports continued to paint a bleak picture about Montana’s ongoing teacher shortage. The latest figures from OPI on educator shortages, presented to lawmakers in January, showed schools statewide were struggling to fill more than 1,000 vacant positions during the 2021-22 school year through a variety of methods, including provisional licensing for teachers. Many of the highest-need areas for recruitment continue to be in elementary education, music and support services for students with special needs.

The issue is likely to fuel additional conversations during the coming 2023 Legislature about what else the state can do. Supporters of HB 143 were careful to caution last year that the bill was not a silver bullet, and that addressing the problem would necessitate further proposals. According to education stakeholders, a leading contender to join the 2023 session’s policy debate is the establishment of a statewide health insurance pool for public school employees.

Teachers and school staff are typically covered by policies negotiated and managed by individual districts. Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, a member of the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee,told MTFP the current model creates different situations for larger and smaller districts. The former can absorb higher health care costs among employees because their overall pool is larger, he said. But for smaller districts, limited pool sizes can drive rates up, as there are fewer payers to bear the costs.

“We’re trying to hit something that encompasses as many people as possible, and there would be some give and take that would have to be done,” Salomon said. “It’s a difficult nut to crack.”

Curtis noted that Washington state recently established a statewide insurance pool for all public school employees, and according to information compiled for the Montana Legislature by the Education Commission of the States in 2016, other states including Arkansas and Delaware offer similar state-sponsored benefit programs. Curtis said she’s broached the subject with lawmakers and with Gianforte’s office several times, and believes that Montana’s recent windfall of federal COVID-19 relief funding presents a rare opportunity in the state’s history to make such an investment. 

“We’ve heard testimony from the state that they would be willing to do that as long as it was every single school employee,” Curtis said. “So we’ve got lots of questions about whether they’re actually going to open a door to make that happen and whether they’re going to use any of this one-time money to make that happen.”

Parman said such a move would help contain insurance costs for districts and ensure that more money can “go into the pockets of teachers” in those districts. Melton agreed, noting that stabilizing rates could bring “significant and positive change” to the education landscape. Melton doesn’t expect that the state’s education associations will be able to “take the edge off the politics” on that issue, but vowed that his organization and others will be there to remind policymakers that a free quality education in Montana is “on the level of a constitutional guarantee.”

“You can’t do that with something basic or rudimentary or uninspiring,” he said. “It calls for sort of, almost like a heroic measure.”

Salomon also predicted that the coming legislative session will likely feature debate about inflation adjustments for public school funding. Those adjustments, which occur as a matter of course every session, are capped in state law at 3%. Inflation soared well beyond that this summer, with the Consumer Price Index reaching 9.1% in June. Rep. David Bedey, the Hamilton Republican who chairs the Legislature’s Education Interim Budget Committee, said the current state cap could be “a major challenge” for lawmakers as they wrestle with how to adjust Montana’s education budget. Salomon echoed Bedey’s assessment, adding that the inflation cap “may rightfully be something that we should take a look at.”

Among the biggest concerns driving the search for solutions is the fear that failing to find one will result in Montana losing quality educators to nearby states like North Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming. According to the National Education Association, the starting salary for teachers in each of those states is at least $7,000 higher. The disparities diminish over time as teachers move up the pay scale, but as Piper noted in MFPE’s analysis, those increases are “a long way in the future” for recent college graduates beginning their careers.

DeJohn is now firmly settled in at Paxson. It’s a “wonderful place,” she said, where she works with “a lot of amazing people.” She said she can imagine moving somewhere where teachers are paid more and the cost of living is cheaper, but there’s no guarantee of finding as good a fit as she’s found at Paxson. Besides, she added, it’s not like teacher pay is exclusively a Montana problem.

“It’s hard to look at it as just a state issue because it is pretty much a countrywide issue.”

Insightful reporting on how policymakers and communities are responding to tough challenges with potential solutions.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...