Amid all of last year’s debate about securing a living wage for workers whose employers receive public dollars, one group of local employees—Missoula County Public School teachers—remained conspicuously absent from the discussions. Maybe that’s because as professionals, they earn more than a minimum wage and aren’t prone to whining. Or maybe it’s because they don’t have much time to involve themselves in the political fray, with their nights and weekends consumed with grading papers, preparing lesson plans, calling parents and working a second, or even a third, job.
Or maybe it’s because for Missoula teachers, some of whom have spent more than 25 years imparting their knowledge, creativity and souls on the hundreds of students who cross their thresholds each day, their jobs have never been about the paycheck, the accolades or even the pat on the back that they say the administration doles out infrequently, if at all. They teach, they say, because they love what they do.
But that love of teaching, no matter how strong, can be stretched only so far, and for many of the district’s brightest and most dedicated teachers, it’s nearing a breaking point. That much was apparent at last week’s MCPS board meeting, ostensibly called to discuss phase one of the preliminary elementary and secondary school budget, the first of several public hearings on a budget that needs to be adopted by August.
Instead, MCPS superintendent Mary Vagner and the school board got an earful from teachers who were at times angry and at other times tearful, but who consistently describe themselves as underpaid, unappreciated, disenchanted and burning out.
“We can’t make it on our salaries. We can’t survive,” says WyAnn Northrop, a special education teacher at Big Sky High School. “I have two children. … My daughter does not wear designer clothes. We don’t drive expensive vehicles. We don’t take expensive vacations. …I know you appreciate what we do for your children. But now you need to show us so that we can give our children more.”
“We are not in an enrollment crisis. … We are in crisis,” says Missoula Education Association President Nancy Fritz, refuting claims by Vagner that low student enrollment figures are to blame for low salaries. “Our patience is exhausted and our acquiescence is over. We have waited out state funding cuts, administrative raises, school closures and the passage of school bonds. Now it’s time for the school board to turn its attention and its resources to teachers’ salaries and teachers’ issues.”
Those issues include reports of the district’s latest proposed salary increase of 0.5 percent, which has sparked rumors that if the teachers demand more money, the administration will be forced to cut “program.”
“The question is, what is ‘program’? ” asks Fritz, who, like many teachers in the room, wore a pin that read, “Teachers are program.”
“You, the board, must know what program is. It is your number one priority,” Fritz says. “Nobody seems to have an answer, but our ‘program’ cuts are as surely on the horizon as were school closures.”
“Apparently, the administration decision-makers and MCPS feel that there is a free lunch, that good teachers will continue to work, and work hard, for wages well below what would be considered appropriate in any other profession,” says Ray Curtis, a social studies teacher at Big Sky High School. “What administrators don’t realize is that at some point, a teacher’s spirit will be broken. I am sad to admit, especially to my students, that I have reached that point. I go home every day tired and poor, as does every teacher in this district.”
Such testimony hardly comes out of left field. At an average annual salary of only $31,356 for the 1998-99 school year, Montana teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. (In contrast, the national average last year was $40,582). Montana currently ranks 47th in the nation for teacher salaries, with only Oklahoma, Mississippi and North Dakota paying their teachers less.
“For 12 of the past 13 years I have taught, inflation has outpaced my modest increase in salary,” adds Curtis. “For me, this is depressing. A house payment over $1,000 seems impossible. So my two-teacher family, we stay in a 1975 trailer house. I can’t afford to drive anything beyond an old van with 113,000 miles on it and a 1960 pick-up.”
As a result, many veteran teachers who are nearing retirement express grave doubts about the district’s ability to attract quality teachers to replace them at the current pay scale.
“We’re training people to go outside the state,” says Darcy Hover, a biology teacher at Hellgate High School. “They’re not going to come to Missoula. They’re not going to come to Montana for the wage that we offer.”
Even a comparison of the base salaries paid in comparably sized districts throughout the state reveals how poorly Missoula teachers are faring. Of the seven largest cities in Montana, Missoula ranks sixth in pay, ahead of only Butte, where the cost of living is lower. Meanwhile, since 1982-83, when K-8 enrollment was about the same as it is now, the number of people in the K-8 central administration and business offices has more than doubled.
“I want good teachers coming in, but you’re not going to do that. You’ve got to be competitive,” says Randy York, a 22-year veteran at Washington Middle School. “When I negotiated in the ’80s, I fought long and hard to deal with this issue. We’re 14 years down the turnpike and like we said then, it’s only going to get tougher. It’s tougher today. It’s going to be tougher tomorrow. You’re going to have to bite the bullet soon. If not, you’re going to go down with the ship.”