Willson School File

The Bozeman Public Schools administrative offices are held at Willson School, photographed on Feb. 9.

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Bozeman School District is taking both short and long term steps to address the staff shortages it’s facing, including raising pay for food service and special education paraprofessionals.

The board voted unanimously during Monday evening’s board meeting to raise pay for the two positions and discussed a long-term solution that would create more flexibility in employees retirement plans.

New hires would see starting wages increase by an average of $1.41/hour. The wage increase would also apply to current food service and special education paraprofessionals at various amounts, dependent on the position and experience.

“We’re addressing some key really targeted areas we’re having hard times hiring,” Mike Waterman, director of business services for the district, told the board Monday.

The district is short about 15 food service employees, which has caused elementary schools to move to sack lunches instead of hot meals. It is also short 15 special education paraprofessionals, which is making it harder to deliver services and support all students.

The bottom line is the district is trying to recruit and retain more staff, Waterman said.

The fiscal impact is expected to be about $131,000 per year.

In the long term, the district is considering adjusting benefits that would see employees receive more pay upfront instead of in their retirement. While it would take legislative action in the 2023 session, the board discussed sending a proposal to the Montana School Boards Association.

The proposal would maintain the current retirement system, which has both the district and employees contributing into their retirement fund.

“We would see to it that there’s not harm done to the pension system,” Waterman said, adding it would be an additional option for those who want to participate.

The proposal would create two other options for employees. One would be reduced retirement benefit where the employee doesn’t contribute into the fund but the district still would. The second would be a no benefits option where neither the employee nor the district contributes into the fund.

Waterman stressed that any plan would need to ensure it doesn’t damage the existing retirement system, saying it would need to be “structured in a way that is actuarially sound.”

If it became a legislative proposal, then there would be a fiscal note to determine what the costs of the changes would be to the state, Waterman said.

As outlined in the district’s proposal, new hires would need to make an “irrevocable” decision on what retirement option they wanted.

Trustee Greg Neil said he appreciated that any changes would not have implications to the retirement fund and supported having options for employees.

A couple of trustees expressed hesitancy and had questions on what it would mean for employees who might choose the no retirement benefit option.

“Personally, when I think about myself as a young teacher, I would’ve gone all in and not put into my retirement,” said Trustee Lei-Anna Bertelsen.

The changes wouldn’t necessarily be targeting people who are considering a career with the district or are in it for the long term but for those who might be in college at Montana State University and looking for part-time work as a custodian, Waterman said.

“The traditional structure will likely be the right answer for most folks, but not everyone is in the same boat,” he said.

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

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