Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) The Office of Public Instruction bungled a key program to boost starting teacher pay, and the number of districts using it recently fell by nearly half, according to a report Thursday to a legislative committee.

One problem is that a hard deadline in state law means it would be nearly impossible to make adjustments now given the fiscal year concludes in about a week, according to OPI.

“OPI dropped the ball on this, did not communicate with the school districts, and as a consequence, one of the more important programs we have for addressing starting teacher pay was underutilized,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, chairperson of the interim budget committee on education.

However, legislators said they expect the situation will improve going forward.

News about new teachers’ pay comes on top of other news that Montana’s teacher turnover is high. Nearly 31% of first-year teachers are experiencing turnover in Montana public schools, and more than 27% are leaving within two to five years, according to OPI.

“This particular data point is alarming to me,” said Julie Murgel, chief operating officer for the state agency. “Turnover is acute in the first five years of teaching.”

This week at a couple of different meetings, legislators and education officials heard updates on initiatives to strengthen public education. Those include ramping up pay and learning opportunities for new teachers, as well as taking a closer look at teacher salaries in Montana.

A preliminary analysis of those salaries by the Department of Labor and Industry indicates starting teachers earn $9,000 more in Montana than a national assessment that ranked Montana at 51 in the U.S. had calculated. A couple of legislators said the national ranking came out of an incomplete assessment.

According to preliminary data from the Department of Labor and Industry, average pay for newly licensed teachers is roughly $43,000, more than the National Education Association calculation of $34,476. The state report put average salaries for all teachers at $60,000, give or take, and depending on the size of district.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said he was disappointed the repeated message about Montana’s low ranking discouraged people from considering a teaching job in the state. Jones, an education and budget leader in the legislature, said he was among those who pushed for the study from the state to see actual data.

Bedey agreed with the need for a thorough analysis: “There’s more to this story, and … those of us who are serious about solving this problem need to solve it based on data, not on talking points.”

High turnover, but high satisfaction

In her report to lawmakers, Murgel said the state lost 2,039 teachers to attrition in the 2021-2022 school year. Additionally, she said, 738 of Montana’s schools experienced turnover, or 89%.

At 37 schools, the turnover rate was more than 80%, Murgel said.

“That’s almost turning over an entire staff in 37 schools,” she said.

Recruiting new teachers and providing them with training is important, but it’s not enough, Murgel said. She said the data indicate retention is important as well, and the state needs to ensure teachers stay in the classroom.

“The major demand is coming from attrition,” Murgel said.

Murgel also shared positive news about one program to support new teachers, a residency program that’s growing and has a 95% satisfaction rate from residents. Murgel said it “flips the script” on how teachers enter the profession.

Instead of 12 weeks of student teaching, a residency offers teachers a full year of student-teaching, she said. Instead of charging them to student-teach, it pays them a $6,000 stipend.

In its first year, the program counted 17 residents across 10 districts, and it grew to 23 residents in 13 districts in its second year, she said. Coming up, Murgel said, it will have 35 to 39 residents who will be placed in 12 to 27 districts.

“What we learned after the first cohort was that the incentives to do this residency model were very enticing,” Murgel said.

Starting teacher pay program botched

In 2021, the Montana Legislature put a program in place to help school districts increase starting teacher pay, which has been low compared to other states. It did so through the TEACH Act, House Bill 143, sponsored by Jones and supported by fellow Republican, Gov. Greg Gianforte.

In the first two years, roughly 100 school districts qualified for at least a portion of the funds, or 109 in the first year and 99 in the second year, said Paul Taylor, budget analyst, with the Office of Public Instruction.

However, data collection shifted to a new system, and the process to gather employee data changed, Taylor said. He said the change resulted in OPI not collecting all the employee data that would count toward the TEACH ACT for starting teacher pay.

In the end, just 57 districts qualified for the 2025 fiscal year, and Taylor said it would be “incredibly difficult” to make adjustments given a new fiscal year starts on July 1.

Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, said she preferred the payments be made despite the many reasons she heard it would be difficult: “I just can’t understand why we can’t just go ahead and do those payments.”

Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said the error is in the past, the TEACH ACT may be improved, and he wants to move forward and have an assurance the problem will stay in the past: “I want to make sure we don’t have a glitch like this next time.”

Taylor said he agreed, and one thing that would be helpful in the future is not putting a hard deadline in statute. That way, he said, a timeline isn’t “locked down” in the law, and adjustments can be made based on the needs of a program.

Teacher salaries

Legislators also heard initial data about teacher salaries from the Department of Labor and Industry, although the director noted it was “a preliminary update.”

Economist Amy Watson said the report used actual payroll wages received by teachers (as opposed to collective bargaining agreements, which the national assessment had used).

The report offered an early analysis of wages for 8,700 teachers out of 28,000 total employees in 393 school districts in the 2022-2023 school year.

An average salary for a teacher at an AA district was $65,000, and for a Class C it was $49,000, according to the report. It calculated entry-level wages at $45,000 for a AA district and $39,400 for a Class C.

Watson said a “deep dive” will follow with additional details, such as comparisons related to years of teaching experience, urban versus rural schools, and non-wage compensation (health insurance and retirement). Researchers will also look at pay for part-time educators and the number who hold second jobs.

Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, said cost of living might be a topic for a future study given salaries in some areas are not keeping up with inflation.

Watson agreed and said housing affordability is an issue across the state.