Bozeman High School art

Bozeman High School students rush out the front doors of the high school in March.

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Bozeman School District is experiencing a critical staff shortage, impacting school lunches, bus routes and special education programs.

Like many employers in the state, school district administrators outlined the struggles to recruit and retain employees and discussed short and possible long-term solutions during Monday evening’s board meeting.

“Staffing is at some critical levels in certain areas,” interim Superintendent Casey Bertram said during the meeting. “… Special education paraprofessionals is the most significant need, as I see it.”

The district estimates it’s short around 153 employees, which includes both part-time and full-time positions.

Unfilled positions include 15 in food service, seven bus drivers through First Student, 15 special education paraprofessionals, 40 paraprofessionals for work like transportation and noon duty, 17 paraprofessionals for before and after school and four certified positions.

While the district has worked in the past few years to raise salaries for paraprofessionals and others as close to $15 per hour as it could, it’s short of where many hourly wages are in the area, said Human Resources Director Pat Strauss.

“All you have to do is drive down Main Street and see the recruiting signs for businesses offering $18 an hour to start,” Strauss said.

With the housing market increasing “astronomically” in the past two years, Strauss said it’s only gotten harder to keep employees in the district, with many young families moving elsewhere.

Although custodian services are down five positions, those are primarily the rovers who move from building to building as needed, said Mike Waterman, director of business services.

While it’s not uncommon for the district to be short a few custodians, Waterman said moving forward it may need to start prioritizing what gets cleaned. For example, he said the district would prioritize cleaning the school buildings over the Willson Building, the district’s administrative offices.

With food services short 15 positions, many of the district’s buildings have transitioned to packaged bagged meals instead of hot lunches. Half of the elementary buildings transitioned to bag lunches this week with the remaining four buildings moving to bag lunches next week, Waterman said.

Supply chain issues have also hampered food services, with 60-70% of the district’s order arriving on an average day, Waterman said.

First Student, which is contracted to provide bus services for the district, is also experiencing staffing challenges. Despite the school board voting in July to increase its contract with the company to improve its hiring and retention, it is short about seven drivers.

The seven positions was an improvement on the week prior, Waterman said. In the first two weeks of school, the district had about 200 non-operational routes, or bus routes that either didn’t run or were more than an hour late.

While the district is in its fourth year of a five-year contract with First Student, Waterman estimates the contract costs will be higher in the future, with it costing more to recruit and retain local drivers.

The district would also like to see more candidates on its substitute list, where people typically pick and choose when they want to work. Bertram said it often becomes more challenging to find substitutes when the ski hills open during the winter.

While there are roughly 199 on the list, the district would like 50 more people.

To entice more people to apply to open positions, the district has put in place a signing bonus for paraprofessionals and an employee referral incentive program for current staff to receive bonuses if they refer someone who is hired and then remains employed for six months, Bertram said.

In the long term, the district is considering adjusting retirement benefits that would see employees receive more pay upfront instead of in their retirement benefits. A proposal would first need to be sent to the Montana School Boards Association then would require legislative approval in the next session.

Many jobs left undone are at the administrative level, with principals jumping in to help paraprofessionals, custodians and other roles needed in the schools, Waterman told trustees.

“Our current employees across our different employee types are all pitching in,” said Bertram. “… It’s just not sustainable long term.”

Bertram said everyone was pitching in all they can but the district was “beginning to have some challenging conversations around supply and demand and adjusting how we do things.”

The district is also working with One Valley Community Foundation to create an employee survey on housing situations and needs.

Bozeman Schools isn’t the only one struggling to find and maintain employees. Belgrade School District is also considering implementing a hiring bonus and employee referral incentive program.

Trustee Greg Neil said no one was going to have an answer that night but it was important to point out the issue to the public and what the district was doing to address it.

“These are issues that almost every business in Bozeman is having. We’re not unique,” Neil said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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