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Deer Creek School

Deer Creek School sits off of Highway 16 near Glendive in September 2016.

Focusing on money doesn’t seem like a strong pitch for recruiting rural teachers, with Montana’s rookie pay worse than any other state in the nation.

“You’re entering a profession where it's not high-paying to begin with,” said former Sidney superintendent Dan Farr. “But look at that salary index and see where it ends up.”

Combined with low housing prices and extra salary opportunities, Farr and other educators argued that rural teaching can be a sweet deal.

Teaching students and school leaders met up at a Montana State University event in December geared toward turning the gaze of Bozeman-dwelling students to rural Montana.

Recruiting and retaining teachers has been increasingly difficult in Montana’s smallest, most isolated schools, with administrators saying that their teacher supply has hit crisis levels. Salary is an oft-cited factor; small schools typically offer lower pay than larger districts.

Now a principal in Colstrip, Aaron Skogen began his teaching career in Highwood. He coached multiple sports throughout the year, tacking on pay stipends to his base salary.

By renting a basement apartment with his wife for $200 a month, he said they saved about $50,000 over five years.

“There’s not a lot to spend it on,” he said.

On average, Montana salaries increase significantly from their bottom-dwelling starting point; the state ranks mid-pack for average teacher salaries. There are also retirement benefits based on how many years a teacher has worked in Montana.

“If you’re going stay in Montana, get it in the system,” said MSU assistant professor Sarah Schmidt-Wilson.

Other states

Some school leaders discussed a loan repayment program operated by the state that’s paid out $9,000 over three years to hundreds of Montana teachers. There’s one problem for upcoming graduates — it may not be an option for their first job.

Montana legislators defunded the program amid a budget crunch last spring, even before a round of cuts triggered by low revenue estimates and before more cuts during a November special session.

Montana has no statewide salary structure; some states provide extra funding to keep salaries level between rich and poor school districts. Montana provides an equalization payment for general operating costs to help level the playing field between districts with large and small tax bases, but major gaps still exist.

School districts must meet a minimum budget, and can reach a maximum 20 percent higher — only if local voters approve higher taxes, something that’s easier to do with a large tax base that decreases the financial burden for the average taxpayer. The more taxpayers chip in, the more money is available to pay teachers.

Other states have taken action, notably South Dakota, which had the worst average teacher salary in the nation. In 2016, that state’s legislature passed a new half-cent sales tax increase to bring up the state’s teacher pay. Last school years, salaries went up $3,700 on average and the state’s target is to increase them another $3,000.

Other jobs

Sydney Arneson is a textbook example of the grow-your-own strategy for rural schools. She grew up in Bison, South Dakota — population 333.

“I knew what it’s like to be a student in one of those small schools, so I want to be a teacher in one of those small schools,” she said.

But there's a nagging issue.

“My biggest concern is that my significant other can’t get a job,” she said.

It’s an oft-cited topic in research on rural teacher shortages and was brought up by several MSU students at the rural meet up. There’s not an easy way around it; even if a rural community is humming, there’s less likely to be work for those looking in a specialized field.

A handful of Eastern Montana communities grew precipitously during the Bakken Boom, but that trend has tailed off.

Shrinking rural communities are hardly new, and are “driven in large part by the increasing scale of agricultural production, fewer employment opportunities, reductions in transportation costs that encourage people to shop further from home, and the concentration of advanced health care facilities in the major urban areas,” according to Montana Business Quarterly.

None of those trends bode well for rural schools. But Arneson isn’t deterred.

She secured a student teaching gig in Troy, with help from a scholarship from the Montana Rural Education Association that will go toward housing costs.

“I’m just diving headfirst into rural Montana,” she said.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.