Other states luring away prospective teachers with handsome salaries, bonuses

Monday was a long, lonely day for Montana's K-12 educators who came to Missoula in hopes of hiring teachers.

School administrators from 41 state districts had nothing but time on their hands as they waited out their stay at the annual Educators' Career Fair at the University of Montana.

For these administrators, the day ended as another reminder that Montana cannot compete with the salaries and hiring packages offered to Montana's graduates by states like California, Oregon and Washington.

"It's been a slow day - we've probably talked to a half a dozen candidates," said Russ Bean, superintendent of Augusta Public Schools. "But when they find out how small we are and what kind of pay we can offer, they're just not interested."

Although more than 500 people came to the Adams Center in search of a job, none lingered at the long line of tables loaded with Montana literature and manned by administrators eager to fill multiple job vacancies that number in the hundreds statewide. They pay around $20,000 a year.

Even Montana's more urban school districts, which are used to large applicant pools, were feeling the sting of would-be recruits spurning the state's low wages.

"Typically we'll have two or three lines of people three to six people deep who want to know more about our schools," said Denise Conrad, special education director for the Great Falls School District. "Today we have no lines. I'll bet we won't have talked to 50 people all day."

The worst part, Conrad said, is that Missoula's career fair was not just a quirk. Last week, Billings hosted a two-day fair that was more depressing.

"Most of the Montana schools packed up the first day and went home," she said, "because they had no interviews lined up."

On Monday in Missoula, however, it was competitive business landing an interview with school districts from the West Coast, which adorned their tables with chamber of commerce-style displays and boldly advertised their starting salaries, which ranged from $31,000 to $41,000 - not to mention signing bonuses that range from $1,000 to $15,000.

"Out-of-state salaries are pretty convincing," said Montana native Chris Schoenen, who has been working in Missoula as a substitute teacher and came to the fair to find a permanent social studies position.

"I thought at first the standard of living would be higher, but (in) some areas like Ridgecrest, California, the starting salary is $36,000 and a two-bedroom house rents for $500 a month," he said. "In Missoula, the average salary is between $19,000 and $20,000 and a two-bedroom house is more than $500."

"I'm keeping my options open, and I'd like to stay in Montana," said Jasper Howell, who was on the hunt for a biology position. "But I did interview with California schools because they pay double."

Mary Ann Higgins, who has taught elementary education for the past 31 years in Great Falls, came to find what she was worth on the open market and left with two job offers, one from an Alaska school district and one from a Nevada school district.

"I'm just thrilled," said Higgins, who will likely take the job in Alaska, which pays around $51,000 a year. "It's more than I have made after all of my years in Great Falls," she said. She now makes $42,000 annually.

And that's one more job for Great Falls administrators to fill.

No wonder that by the fair's end, Montana educators said they were feeling beleaguered and beaten.

Said Steve Smyth, superintendent of Browning School District: "We've been out of state for a month looking to fill 30 positions by August, and we're still looking."

And it's not heartening, he said, that a nationwide teacher shortage means that nearly every school district across the country is trying to fill its growing void of unfilled positions. At one fair in Michigan, Smyth said, he sat next to a California educator from the Los Angeles area who was trying to fill 2,000 teaching positions.

But because of low wages, Montana will continue to struggle filling teaching positions - regardless of a teacher shortage, he said.

"We really have our priorities wrong - we spend a significant more amount of money on corrections than we do on education," Smyth said.

Although Smyth and other Montana educators defend the high quality of applicants that are hired, they said that trying to find teachers for advanced sciences, math and special education in particular rapidly is approaching crisis levels.

"At times we aren't able to fill those positions, and adversely, we can't give kids the quality education they need," said Andrew Holmlund, superintendent of Wolf Point School District. "In Montana, we want it all but we don't have the budget to provide."

"We are losing our future," he said. "You cannot, as an individual coming out of college with $15,000 to $20,000 in loans, take a job that starts at $19,000."

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