LeeAnn Walls

LeeAnn Walls, a Glasgow school teacher, used to think she was the only person whose hopes for student loan forgiveness were dashed by fine print. Now she wonders, "Was I cheated?"

LeeAnn Walls, a Glasgow schoolteacher, thought she was the only person who failed to qualify for forgiveness of her student loans because of something in the fine print.

Now she wonders, “Holy cow, was I cheated?”

Walls, 36, said she dreamed of being a teacher since she was in second grade.

So she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Montana State University-Northern and a master’s degree from online Walden University.

She worked at low-income schools in Browning, Sunburst and Saco. Along the way she raised two children.

Today she owes $100,000 in student loans.

When she heard about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, she asked her loan service’s call center if there was any additional paperwork. No, she was told. “All I had to do was make 120 payments.”

A divorce and a $20,000 emergency Life Flight to Billings left her with big bills. In a panic, she filed for bankruptcy. But still she kept making her student loan payments to FedLoan.

One day she found some things that didn’t look right with her account online and phoned the call center.

They told her all the payments she’d made over many years wouldn’t count toward the 120 months required to qualify for loan forgiveness because of the bankruptcy, even though that hadn’t interrupted her payments.

“I was shocked. I was very stunned,” Walls said. “The first thing I did was cry. I asked them, ‘Why? It’s not in your fine print.’

“‘Well, I’m sorry,’” she was told. “’You were misinformed.’”

“I was misinformed by your employee,” she protested.

What hurts most is that Walls had hoped to have her loans squared away by the time her daughter starts college, so she could help her daughter, who wants to be a teacher, too.

“But now, that’s not an option,” Walls said. “My parents had pretty big dreams for us. I feel I kind of failed them.”

Worry about student loans is “always looming, it’s always there,” Walls said.

Brenda Laramore works as an elementary school secretary in Helena, having worked her way up from school crossing guard and classroom aide.

Laramore, 58, didn’t go to college, but she was so determined to help her two daughters get a university education that she took out Parent PLUS loans.

That left her $114,000 in debt. With interest it has ballooned to $152,000.

Laramore, who earns $14 an hour, felt hopeful when she signed up for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but today feels pessimistic.

“It’s a big debacle,” she said. “At the beginning when you read about it, you think, ‘Wow, my family’s all about public service,’” having worked for the military, state and schools. “It’s all about making a better place for our kids and grandkids.”

Laramore tried to do everything right. She consolidated all the loans she’d taken out over the years into one loan and then got on an income-based repayment plan.

Every January she gets a certificate from her school to prove she’s working for a public service agency. Once it was rejected because a box wasn’t checked. One form was sent back three times.

After learning about the program’s failure to forgive loans, she said, “It’s very disheartening. … I don’t know if they can fix it.”

She has urged her daughters, now graduated and living at home, to pay off their own loans as quickly as possible.

Nicole Thuotte, 47, works on school budgets for the Montana Office of Public Instruction in Helena. She applied two years ago to have the remainder of her student loans forgiven because she’d made 120 payments over 10 years.

“It came back denied because I’d consolidated my loans,” she said. “I was upset.”

But Thuotte decided not to fight it because of her eight children, two have disabilities and one young son has been fighting leukemia. She has had to travel to Seattle every three months for his care.

“We’ve got plenty to do without fighting this program,” Thuotte said. “It should be simple.”

Still, she said, the $100 a month she pays on student loans would have gone a long ways toward helping with medical bills.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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