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Greg Upham

Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham speaks to the Board of Trustees during a school board meeting in April prior to his hiring.

Montana has long reported teacher shortage areas and certification red flags that help illustrate the state's need for rural educators. 

But so far, examples of schools struggling to find principals and superintendents have been more anecdotal. 

A new addition to a shortage report shows that Montana schools have at least as much trouble finding their leaders as their teachers. 

The Critical Quality Educator Shortage Report was presented to the Montana Board of Public Education earlier in November. 

Of at least 34 open superintendent positions, about 71 percent of the positions were hard to hire. That's above the rates of subject areas like art, music and special education that are considered difficult to hire for, though there are typically more vacancies in those positions than for superintendents. 

School Administrators of Montana executive director Kirk Miller said that he hadn't reviewed the report in detail, but that anecdotal examples indicate hiring struggles abound. 

“The bottom line is that we know that there are rural areas … where it’s hard to fill teaching positions and administrative positions alike,” he said. 

Filling principal jobs proved to be far easier; only about 29 percent of jobs were reported as difficult to hire for. 

Finding special education supervisors was particularly difficult. Of at least 23 open jobs, 91 percent were hard to fill. 

In small schools, administrative positions often are not full-time. It's not uncommon for a superintendent; according to a report from School Administrators of Montana, 106 of the state's 202 superintendent positions are full-time. In 72 of those districts with full-time superintendents, the superintendent is the only administrator, meaning that they also serve as principal and fulfill other duties as well. 

It's also not uncommon for principals to oversee multiple schools. For example, one principal who oversees a K-12 building technically holds three jobs — elementary, middle and high school principal. The SAM report shows that of the state's 702 principal positions, 289 were full-time. 

Miller said having hard data to back up anecdotes is important in determining how to use limited resources, both in terms of people and money.

He also pointed to an unreleased survey of educators, measuring strengths and challenges of jobs in small and large communities.

“When we have good data, like from the survey, it allows us to really target what we need to do in such a way that we use those resources,” he said. 

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Teacher data

Information on teaching subject areas was a duplicate of that in last year's report, something that wasn't brought up at the board meeting. The board approved the report without commenting on shortage areas. 

Previous reports have presented new data each year. 

Scott Furois, an analyst for the Office of Public Instruction who presented the report, didn't note the departure from past reports during the meeting, instead highlighting that shortage area information doesn't change much from year to year. 

“These areas are pretty consistent,” he said. 

In an email, an OPI spokesman cited an explanation from Furois who initially said that the information was different from the previous year's report.

When shown a comparison of shortage area data showing duplication in the two reports, the spokesman offered a different explanation from Furois; the data from the 2017 report was used again in the 2018 report. 

The data was still being collected until a week before the meeting, the email said. Furois also mentioned the data collection in his comments to the board. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.