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Circle student works on homework

A student at Circle High School works on homework in this 2016 file photo. 

Montana's teacher shortage is still a rural problem. Small schools in the state's most isolated areas struggle to recruit and retain teachers. 

But anecdotes from the state's large districts are also popping up. 

Billings still has two open high school jobs in the school district; a business teacher, and a family and consumer science teacher. Both subjects have long been considered hard to hire in rural schools, but less so for Montana's AA schools. 

"A city of our size, we couldn't fill two positions? I've not seen this before," said superintendent Greg Upham, a longtime Montana educator. 

To be clear, teacher shortages are still worse in rural schools. A recent study from Regional Education Laboratory Northwest reinforced that trend, showing that the smaller and more isolated a school is, the more they struggle to recruit and retain educators. 

But still, Laurel superintendent Linda Filpula noted, after early results of the report were presented at an October school administrators conference, that her district hadn't been able to fill a position in special education or one in music. 

That's in a Class A school, a short drive from Montana's biggest city, and with a salary matrix that Filpula said is competitive with Billings. 

The shortage of general teaching positions doesn't appear to have reached Missoula's city limits yet, according to what district superintendent Rob Watson told the Missoulian early this semester. The Missoula County public school district has not faced significant teacher shortages in the urban area and typically doesn't struggle to get applicants. But Seeley Swan High School has struggled to fill teaching positions as the district's most rural school, such as when they could not find a candidate to fill the position for a part-time music teacher last school year.

However, the Missoula district has struggled to fill some specialized positions.

"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 earlier.

New report

A handful of programs have attempted to combat the problem, but the new report recommends where they could make the most impact — the smallest schools, and reservation schools. 

Schools where more than 50% of students are Native American kept 78% of teachers between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years. Schools with fewer than 11.2% of Native American students — the state average — kept 87% of teachers. 

The former figure is also lower than the 83% of teachers who stayed in rural districts overall. However, it's not the only school group with lower numbers; school districts with fewer than 100 students retained 76% of their teachers. 

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The report suggests that Montana education leaders should consider programs that boost incentives for teachers, professional development and opportunities for career advancement. 

Montana legislators have considered teacher shortage solutions, but have mostly balked if they require money — which many do. 

For example, Democrat Rep. Tyson Runningwolf from Browning introduced a proposal for a state-funded grow-your-own program — a research-based strategy that focuses on training people who already have roots in a community as teachers. But it carried a $500,000 price tag, and didn't advance out of committee. 

Nor did a proposed $500,000 grant program aimed at rural schools that was sponsored by Republican Rep. Becky Beard. 

A bill sponsored by outgoing Rep. Llew Jones, who was often in the center of education policy debates, restored a student loan repayment for teachers in rural schools — but the money merely replaced what had been cut in 2017

Mobility

About 9% of teachers in Montana left the Montana public school system at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the report found, compared to about 8% nationally. About 10% of Montana principals left. 

But it's unclear if they got education jobs in different states, retired, or just quit teaching and perhaps pursued a different field of work. 

The most recent federal data on teacher retirements is stale; in 2009, about 28% of teachers who left the classroom retired. 

Montana administrators have also long-bemoaned competition from Wyoming and North Dakota, which generally offer better teacher salaries than most rural schools, but hard data on how many teachers move states is elusive.

A 2017 Idaho study found that the state had a 10% teacher attrition rate, and that new teachers were dropping out of jobs at alarming rates. Within the first five years of teaching, 42% of graduates of Idaho teacher preparation programs no longer had a teaching job.

The new Montana report also found that rural schools likely lose out when teachers switch jobs.

About 25% of teachers who left their jobs went to a different Montana school. Among that group, 29% moved from a rural job to a non-rural job, and 21% went from a non-rural location to rural. 

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Missoulian reporter Cameron Evans contributed to this story. 

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