BILLINGS — As School District 2 in Billings started another school year Monday, every classroom across the city had a teacher, though it did come down to the wire. District officials had to pull staff from support programs to fill positions as recently as last week.
They’re also fully staffed 23 miles away in Park City, where the school district made a key decision to be Montana’s latest to go to a four-day school week.
"It absolutely played a role," said Sarah Bolin, a first-year Park City teacher.
On her first day, Bolin already knows she made the right decision to leave Billings Senior High School and come back to small school life.
"I started out at Senior hoping it would be what I wanted," she said, "but after the large class sizes, the large institution in general, I just needed more of that small town feel."
The decision was even easier when she learned the Panthers were becoming Montana’s 43rd district to move to a four-day week.
"Having had that when I was in high school, I loved it," she said. "Since I'm the volleyball coach here too, it gives me a day to work on stuff for that or work on school work. It's nice to have extra time to get those things done."
Bolin is exactly the kind of teacher SD2 Superintendent Greg Upham wants and fears there are too few of.
"What I’m really concerned about is the dropping number of students going in the university system going into education," he said. "The cost of education, the cost to get a degree. Salaries for educators aren’t as high as other professions."
And it’s worse in Montana than anywhere else in the country. Montana’s starting teacher salary is $32,871, 50th out of 50 states. The numbers are a little better in Billings - first-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn $40,576, but multiple studies show Montana is now in the top third of states in highest cost of living, so even that number is hard to stomach.
It often takes another reason besides money.
"A calling, if you will?" Upham said. "Yeah, educators are altruistic in their being. They love seeing people do better because of their own hard work."
There just aren’t enough of them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 300,000 public school teachers left the field over the past two years. Many states are choosing to lower hiring standards to try and fill the gaps with anyone who will apply, but Upham doesn’t want to go down that road.
"I’m very concerned about dropping the standards. I really am," he said. "I think there are things we can do, just like we're doing here, prior to doing that.
"It's a complex issue. There's a lot of ups and downs in people's lives that professionals need to be aware of. I don't have a great answer to it, but it's something we need to work on."