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Wayne McMinn spent Thursday afternoon driving Big Sky School District’s volleyball team to an away game, time he normally would spend cleaning one of the schools. He arrived at work the next day at 4 a.m., well before the sun rose. McMinn cleaned as much as he could before picking up students on his morning bus route.

McMinn serves as bus driver and transportation supervisor for the district, as well as one of its two part-time custodians.

He had a few hours at home before returning to the school around noon, where he cleaned for three hours ahead of his afternoon bus route.

On any given day in Gallatin County, there are custodians arriving early to clean what was left undone from the day before, administrators filling in for unavailable substitutes and food service members understaffed while feeding hundreds of hungry children.

It’s common for school districts to have turnover in school support positions. But interviews with the heads of seven school districts in Gallatin County revealed increased staff shortages and shallow applicant pools unlike anything experienced before.

While McMinn has worked the split position of bus driver and part-time custodian for almost four years, he said it’s become more challenging since there are now only two part-time custodians for the whole district.

“It is hard, difficult, yes, but you just have to let things go. I can’t do it all in one day. I can’t clean the whole building and then do my bus driving,” McMinn said. “… It’s definitely very difficult to balance the two. All you can do is what you can.”

The very nature of the two positions can make it challenging to attract applicants. Bus drivers have split shifts that amount to three hours each day, while custodial work isn’t the most glamorous, McMinn said. Then there’s the cost of living in the resort town.

“There’s a shortage of housing, and what they do have, a person on this salary, they can’t afford it,” McMinn said.

Dustin Shipman, superintendent of Big Sky School District, said the district has always struggled to fill its custodial and bus driver positions, with the applicant pool especially limited this year.

He said custodians have been harder to fill, potentially because they have more options with private companies in Big Sky.

The issue isn’t unique to the district of around 400 students.

“I don’t think there is a perfect solution out there right now,” Belgrade School District Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said. “… I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve never, in 43 years, experienced anything like this.”

From rural districts with under 500 students to the larger districts of Belgrade and Bozeman, almost every district reported being impacted by higher than normal staff shortages and challenges with recruitment and retention.

Hiring challenges

Across the board, substitutes have been in short supply for almost every district that spoke with the Chronicle.

Belgrade started the year thinking it had around 107 substitutes on its list.

Administrators are in the process of making calls to those on the list but they’ve quickly realized the actual number is far smaller. Belgrade is also short six paraprofessionals, a handful of food service employees and 14 custodians, as of Monday.

“We have our administrators subbing in to help out so we can keep our schools open,” Saunders said.

The smaller districts like Gallatin Gateway and Monforton share a substitute list with the Gallatin County Superintendent’s office.

Darren Strauch, superintendent of Monforton School, a K-8 district, said they have two to three substitutes who are available to fill in pretty regularly but they’re still short substitutes more than normal.

“We’ve had a couple of staff members that have wanted to take personal days and reconsidered,” Strauch said.

In Gallatin Gateway School, Superintendent Theresa Keel said they’re encouraging residents to sign up for the substitute list.

“We’re like every other school,” Keel said. “We’re all rowing in the same boat where we can’t find enough people to row.”

In mid-September, the K-8 school district of around 160 students had two paraprofessional positions open since July with no applications, an open district clerk and business manager position, a part-time cook position it couldn’t fill and a handful of open coaching positions.

While the district has a kitchen manager, without the part-time cook, it puts an added strain on the manager to not miss work.

“If my kitchen manager has to take a day off to go to the doctor, then we do sack lunches,” Keel said. “… We do what we have to do to provide a quality education to our kids.”

To improve recruitment of paraprofessionals, the district increased pay by $2 per hour, starting the positions at $16 an hour. But the salary raise hasn’t necessarily resulted in increased applications.

“From my perspective, given what we can pay, what school districts can pay for paraprofessionals, they can’t afford to live in the valley here and work,” Keel said, adding most of her staff live in Belgrade or Bozeman. “… I would love to pay them more but school finances are finite.”

Keel said it’s likely not just the cost of housing in the Bozeman area that is a challenge because there are job openings across the country in various fields.

Raising wages

Gallatin Gateway isn’t the only district that has tried increasing pay to increase recruitment and retention.

In Manhattan School District, Superintendent Brian Ayers said even with pay increases it’s still hard to compete with other industries, even local fast food restaurants.

“Being competitive with other employers, I think that’s a challenge for schools. We have limited resources and we can’t compete with the private sector,” Ayers said.

Strauch of Monforton said it can be especially challenging to recruit for some of the positions that require a serious responsibility, like those working with students who have learning differences.

“If you have the capacity of making tacos at Taco Bell and making $18 an hour, it’s hard to compete with that,” Strauch said. “It seems to be the case not just for us but the whole county is kind of dealing with it.”

Monforton ended the last school year in a pretty good position for staffing, Strauch said. But by the start of this school year, it was down about half of its paraprofessionals from 25 filled positions to 12.

While the district has all of its teaching positions filled, it is also down three food service positions and two front office staff.

While the school board and administration have had conversations around creating things like sign-on bonuses, Strauch said they are trying to ensure any recommendations they make are fiscally responsible.

“You’ve got people who have come back year after year and you want to honor them and their commitment to the district and not break the bank when you offer a bonus or higher starting wage,” Strauch said. “You don’t want to run off the folks that have been by your side the entire time.”

At Manhattan, Ayers said the district has all of its paraprofessionals and teacher positions filled but custodian positions remain a challenging one to employ.

Typically, the district of 760 students would have two daytime custodians and six evening custodians. At the end of September, it had two day custodians and only two evening positions filled.

To fill that gap, the district has contracted its evening custodial services for the elementary school building to an outside company. It’ll cost the district $86,000 for the school year.

“It’s a significant cost and not something we can sustain over a long period of time,” Ayers said. “We do really need to recruit and attract new custodians to our district because our (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds are one-time-only money.”

The district has also hired two high school students as part-time custodians in the evening, working a 3 ½- to four-hour shift. Ayers said the high school students have a flexible schedule to accommodate sports or other after school events they’re attending.

“The day custodians start the early part of their shift completing what would normally be completed by the evening custodians, that would be the classrooms, locker rooms,” Ayers said.

Employers need to become more creative and innovative on what the job is to meet potential employees where they are, Ayers said.

“People have options and you need to meet the needs of the workforce as well as your needs. You need to be more and more open to what are the needs of the workforce and how can this job look different to recruit new workers,” he said.

For Manhattan, that might look like redefining how its evening custodial positions are structured and scheduled, since it’s historically been harder to hire for evening positions.

Other small school districts, like Monforton and Anderson School, have contracted custodial services for a few years now.

Anderson School, a K-8 district of just over 200 students, hired a full-time day custodian and outsourced the evening custodial work.

“It’s finding a consistent employee to work a night shift and the availability that you can find someone, that’s what the issue was previously. We were having a lot of turnover,” Superintendent Kristi Jacobs said.

Anderson has been “feeling very fortunate” in staffing this school year and is only short one bus driver, Jacobs said. She chalks it up to both luck and low turnover from the previous school year.

Anderson, which runs its own bus service, looked into contracting bus routes last spring but found it was too expensive.

“We have to remain competitive with our salary and within our budget limit. It can get tricky with what our budgets can allow and what we need to recruit and maintain quality candidates,” Jacobs said, adding the cost of housing and living in the valley hasn’t helped.

Manhattan, about 30 minutes northwest of Bozeman, hasn’t been immune to the rising cost of living in the valley. The taxable value of a home in Manhattan’s elementary district increased by 18.1% from last year, according to Ayers.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of variables going into it but I think for sure the cost of living in Manhattan has increased significantly in a very short period of time,” Ayers said, adding an upcoming job fair is hoping to attract people who already live in the area.

Some districts, like Bozeman and Belgrade have attempted to increase recruitment and retention through either hiring bonuses or referral bonuses.

In Belgrade, if an employee recommends someone who is hired, they get $100. If that person stays employed for six months, the employee who recommended them gets an additional $400. Saunders said they’re hopeful more people will convince their friends and neighbors to apply.

A national trend

All of the school district leaders who spoke to the Chronicle said they’ve seen support and flexibility from current employees and parent volunteers.

“All in all, considering our issues, we’re seeing in these tough times a great sense of community being exhibited by many people and that’s reassuring, that’s comforting,” Saunders said.

Many of the superintendents also acknowledged it wasn’t a long-term solution for an issue that seems to be widespread throughout the country.

Nationally, more than 446,000 jobs in public education were open in June, and 460,000 in July, compared to less than half of those figures at the same point last year, according to a report by Ed Week magazine.

For McMinn, his bus routes and the daily interactions with the students keep him coming back.

“You get to see them grow up, watch their personalities change and go from one school to the next,” McMinn said. “That’s one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done is driving these kids around.”

So come morning, he’ll rise and be at work before the sun’s rays hit the horizon. He’ll do what he can to clean the school before tracing his bus route and welcoming each student to the new day.

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

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