Until mid-August, Manhattan Schools Superintendent Brian Ayers thought he would be in the kitchen to fill the vacant position of food services director and chef.
Fortunately, a few weeks before the district began on August 24, Ayers asked a Manhattan resident to apply and take the job.
“When you have a need, everyone pitches in and that’s something I love about this district and this community,” Ayers said. “This community is really coming together and getting involved.”
Although Ayers joked that it was in everyone’s interest that he not act as a chef, it is an example of how school districts in Gallatin Valley have been facing challenges ahead of the start of this school year to fill teaching positions and schedules.
Even districts reporting full or nearly full staff have been creative with job placements and are reporting fewer applicants for vacancies overall.
Despite the resignations at the end of the summer of a handful of staff, including the head of food services, Ayers said all of his teaching positions are filled while a paraprofessional position and a few evening caretaker are open.
“We are blessed because I know many of my colleagues are still trying to fill positions today,” Ayers said. “It’s a statewide and national challenge.”
Most Manhattan hires come from people who live in the city, Ayers said. Historically, it has often hired its own returning graduates, with employees often staying on until retirement. Ayers estimates that a significant number of teachers will be approaching retirement over the next five years.
“We had to work hard to fill our positions. It won’t be easy moving forward,” Ayers said.
It’s become harder to entice people to move to Manhattan who aren’t already connected there. Ayers said the cost of living was lower than in Bozeman or Belgrade, but has risen sharply over the past three years. As more teachers and staff begin to retire, Ayers predicts it will be harder to recruit.
“Available housing and the cost of living are two major challenges for us. As we begin to see more and more retirements, recruiting new teachers is going to become increasingly difficult due to the lack of available housing and even affordable housing. People can’t afford to live here anymore either,” he said.
While Ayers could think of a few instances of people moving to Manhattan from neighboring districts for more of a small-town setting, he said when the district loses people, it’s usually because they move into other districts that may pay more.
In Belgrade, its superintendent Godfrey Saunders said they were well staffed for general education teachers, but had openings among special education teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers and the gardians.
“We can’t find special education teachers,” Saunders said. “I think there’s also competition outside of Montana for these special education teachers, where they can pay more and the cost of living is lower.”
While district administrators and staff will step in to help, Saunders said he hopes the district can fill more positions during the school year.
“It’s a pressure for everyone, and you have to pay close attention and listen to what the staff are saying and try to do what you can to reduce the stress level and the amount of extra things people have to do. “, said Saunders.
Like other districts, Belgrade has seen more turnover over the past year, with employees leaving for a variety of reasons, including higher pay elsewhere, a spouse moving for work or driven away by the cost of living.
“There was no single reason (to leave) but we had over 40 vacancies this year,” he said. “Usually we have around 20 or 25 max.”
Belgrade also hires more new teachers, who are more likely to be looking for accommodation than more established teachers.
“It’s getting harder for junior teachers or new classified staff to survive in the valley, especially house prices. It gets harder and harder,” Saunders said.
Even schools that are fully staffed, like K-8 Anderson School, have reported significantly fewer people applying for positions.
“We’re full, which seems like a miracle to me in this environment,” Anderson School superintendent Kristi Jacobs said. “We certainly had fewer applications for positions than in recent years. It is more difficult to find candidates and to find people to apply.
Part of that likely has to do with how much schools can pay, Jacobs said.
“We’re a school on a budget,” Jacobs said. “We lost an hourly worker because she could nanny and get paid more. We do our best to be competitive in terms of salaries without breaking our budgets. They must really want to be in education and want to be in a school.
Being a smaller district and requiring fewer staff has its advantages to a point, Jacobs said. Anderson has about 30 people, split almost evenly between certified and hourly staff.
“We are able to adjust to our needs being a small district. We have people who fill multiple roles,” she said.
As an example, Jacobs said they had a caretaker who doubled as a bus driver and Anderson shared a music teacher with La Motte School, another small K-8 school.
Every superintendent who spoke to the Chronicle also said there was a need for additional and more consistent substitute teachers, with the small rural school sharing a roster curated by the Gallatin County Superintendent of Schools.
Jacobs said she has also seen a change in the depth of the substitute pool.
“Before, if you were a young teacher and you weren’t hired, you replaced to make yourself known. Now with the shortage of teachers and every young teacher being recruited, we don’t have that pool anymore,” she said.
Like Anderson School, Monforton Schools has seen a decrease in the number of applicants for vacancies or no-shows for interviews, according to its superintendent Darren Strauch.
“We are seven for seven. We had seven applicants, seven interviews arranged and seven no-shows,” he said.
In response, Strauch said they offered more flexibility. For example, if someone applying for a paraprofessional position can only work two days a week, they make it work, he said.
Monforton has also filled positions for its teaching staff, with the most difficult positions to fill being in the food services department. With one food service staff member in each building and no food service manager, the district plans to offer a lean menu with building administrators and volunteers stepping in to help.
“It’s been one of those nice perks of having a small staff. People are stepping in and helping out however they can,” Strauch said.
Particularly for part-time food service positions, it’s hard to compete with some of Bozeman’s fast-food restaurant salaries, he said.
Monforton is contracting out its babysitting and bus services, with no openings in those positions, Strauch said.
“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to make sure we’re putting in the best programs possible,” he said. “Our community is understanding, knowing what we’re dealing with in the Gallatin Valley.”
While schools in the valley said they had filled their teaching positions, there is still a long-term concern over the search for teachers as more people retire or move to new places. other industries.
Anderson Superintendent Jacobs said she is worried about what will happen in the future as teachers leave for higher paying professions and fewer people choose to enter the field.
“My biggest fear is that interest and respect for the profession is declining,” she said. “The work is hard. You must be a child and it takes a lot of dedication to be a good teacher.