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Recruiting and retaining teachers and staff, meeting the needs of special education students, and keeping school facilities in good condition are some of the top issues Montana's school districts are facing, according to a new survey by the Montana School Boards Association.

The 2019 survey by the association, a nonprofit that supports school boards and advocates on issues before the Montana Legislature and Congress with the goal of improving student achievement, included responses from 148 individuals representing 125 school systems, including trustees, administrators, and district clerks and business managers.

Participants listed the recruitment and retention of quality staff as their top concern, noting the state's worker shortage, low pay for early career teachers compared to other states, and an expected increase in retirements as contributing factors. The average starting salary for teachers in Montana was $31,418 for the 2017-2018 school year, according to data from the National Education Association. In comparison, teachers could earn an average starting salary of $34,801 in Idaho for the same year, or $42,240 in Washington.

"Montana is dead last for beginning teachers," read one comment in the survey.

Montana's Office of Public Instruction, which oversees the state's public K-12 institutions, supported two bills to combat the problem. One, passed in the 2017 legislative session, supports stipends for Montana teachers who become National Board Certified. Another, passed in 2007, provides funds to help teachers pay back educational loans.

However, some educators said the laws are not enough in a portion of the survey with anonymous comments.

"The teacher shortage crisis is more real than our legislators appear to realize," one educator wrote. "I am afraid it is too late to avoid major hardships. It will take years for our teacher supply to rebound."

Montana still offers the lowest starting salary to teachers in the nation so districts often have trouble competing with neighboring states. In rural areas, where the teacher shortage is especially prevalent, the pay is often even lower.

Barb Riley, a Columbia Falls School District trustee and Montana School Boards Association president of region 1, said increasing health care costs and high costs of living in many places in Montana such as the Flathead Valley add to the struggle to recruit and retain teachers.

Riley said she sees an extra need for qualified special services staff such as occupational therapists and special education teachers, in addition to staff for elective programs like music, foreign languages and the arts.

There is also a need to fill specialized positions in Missoula, according to Rob Watson, the superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools. Watson said overall, the district doesn't struggle to get applicants, although they still find themselves competing for teachers with other states.

"Even though we pay a competitive salary for Montana standards, we're competing for teachers that might go to Wyoming or Washington and make quite a bit more money," Watson said.

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The survey flagged a lack of sufficient funding for special education as the second greatest concern, followed by the need to maintain quality facilities, school safety, and ensuring educational equity for students from low-income families.

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Participants also raised concerns, although to a lesser extent, over both increasing and decreasing enrollments (which varied by district), personalized learning, record keeping and data reporting obligations, and student transience.

Lance Melton, the school board association's executive director, said the organization will discuss the survey's findings with local school districts throughout the year and ultimately decide which concerns they'll bring to the legislature.

Several issues stem from budget shortfalls at the state and federal level, including the lack of sufficient funding for special education.

Melton said the lack of special education funding is an issue that "falls at the feet of Congress," because the federal government routinely falls short of its commitment to fund 40% of costs for special needs students per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1975.

"The highest that the federal government has really ever come is about half their commitment," Melton said.

The remainder is funded through a combination of state money, although there have been minimal increases in state funds to keep up with inflation. The state often scrambles to find money, and districts rely on local taxpayers to pick up the slack.

"Cost associated with serving a child with a disability can be very, very significant," Melton said.

While some students with learning disabilities might need tutoring, others may have disabilities requiring a more significant investment, such as one-on-one aid.

The cost of attendance per student varies by state, the number of students who attend a school, and for students in need of support services, by the hours of special education they receive each week. The national average per student cost is $7,552, while the average special education student costs an additional $9,369 per student, or $16,921 total, according to the National Education Association.

The need for an increase in special education funding is one of several issues the association plans to bring to the legislature in the 2021 session. In addition, Melton said the state is working in the interim to implement and ensure there's an adequate inflationary adjustment for special education in the law.

"Special education is the one area in that formula that is not inflation adjusted," Melton said.

The nonprofit association aims to increase conversations on the issues so that school boards and trustees have a chance to talk with their local legislatures and familiarize them with the issues before the 2021 session starts.

Melton said he hopes the organization is able to help address the issues and ensure equitable public education for all students across the state.

"That's what public education is supposed to do," Melton said. "So that a student can come into a public school and they're going to have a better chance of success than their parents or generations before them did."

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