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Largest School District In State Raises Pay, Still Behind Wyoming

Billings Public Schools, the largest district in Montana, used to get a flood of applications when it posted a teaching job.

Now, Superintendent Erwin Garcia said it’s getting one application for every 10 positions, roughly a reverse of the 10 apps to one single job it used to get.

He said teachers apply from other states — “They love Montana” — but they change their minds once they realize the pay compared to the cost of housing.

“We are scratching our heads right now,” Garcia said. “What are we going to do?”

This month, Billings moved ahead on a deal that will mean a significant increase for rookie teachers, he said — from $41,803 to $46,900.

“What we want is to be the best paying district in Montana, so we want to be sure beginning teacher pay jumps up significantly,” he said.

However, data Garcia presented last week to the school board shows Billings is still behind at least a couple of nearby and competing districts in Wyoming. For example, his data shows Sheridan School District pays $54,525 to new teachers.

“We still have a long way to go compared to Wyoming salaries, especially at the base,” he said.

Montana has long been at the bottom of the heap for starting teacher pay, and Garcia told the school board that even with some increases, teachers are still behind with the rising cost of health insurance.

In 2021, the Montana Legislature created the TEACH Act to try to help increase starting teacher pay. However, a report to lawmakers earlier this year said starting pay is still low, citing a national benchmark that ranked Montana 51 in 2023. It said new teachers here earn $6,000 to $13,000 less than in neighboring states.

The act creates a payment that goes to districts, not directly to teachers, and the report from the Montana Legislature’s Office of Research and Policy Analysis said the number of teachers who qualify for the incentive increased “a bit” from 2023 to 2024, but the number of school districts receiving the money dropped.

On Friday, Garcia said more seasoned teachers in Billings also will see increases following recent negotiations, generally to the tune of 5.9 percent, and he said teachers who have master’s degrees and more experience are “very competitive” with Wyoming.

For example, a teacher moving from year five to year six will go from $61,671 to $65,242.

However, Garcia said if Montana doesn’t address the cost of housing, day care, and health insurance, teachers won’t be able to afford to take jobs in this state.

“Eventually, we are going to run out of teachers in the profession. And then we’re just going to have to use AI (artificial intelligence). Isn’t that sad? It’s the reality,” Garcia said.

He said he doesn’t want people to take his remarks as a threat, but he does want to be transparent about the limited alternatives. They include bringing in teachers from overseas, who sometimes struggle with the language, he said — and AI, which he said would represent “a decline of civilization.”

“If we do something like that, we’re in trouble. That’s why we need to increase teacher salaries,” Garcia said.

He said in some cities in Montana, teachers don’t have certificates, which he doesn’t want to see either.

His focus is on quality education for students and a strong workforce for the future of the state. But Montana is behind, he said; by comparison, Montana spends $315 million less on education on average on a per pupil basis than other states.

The Billings Education Association could not be reached Friday for comment.

In an earlier interview, Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said year after year, elected officials “dabble around the edges at school funding” during legislative sessions. She said Montana recently has seen 1,000 open teacher jobs, but the teachers Montana is graduating aren’t taking jobs here, and the fix doesn’t require rocket science.

“I’m tired of people pretending there’s some other complicated solution,” Curtis said. “Just f**king pay them.”

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