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Montana teacher shortage 'crisis' escalates

by KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| July 18, 2021 12:00 AM

Montana faces a worsening teacher shortage "crisis" even as education officials worry that a key support for students — mental health care through the Comprehensive School and Community Treatment Program — remains in limbo.

Beth Brenneman, with Disability Rights Montana, said parents of roughly 4,500 children who receive mental and behavioral health services in schools through CSCT don't know if the program will continue, and she requested lawmakers give families assurances.

"People are panicked," Brenneman said.

Diane Fladmo, with the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said she knows the Office of Public Instruction and the Department of Public Health and Human Services are working hard to retain the program, but providers are nervous, and time is of the essence. She urged legislators to keep a close eye on progress by the agencies.

"I'm hoping that you'll join in both the efforts and also the monitoring of those so that we don't suffer a gap, and we don't let a system crumble that has been so critical to our schools," Fladmo said. "We want to keep teachers. That's another part. Part of retaining teachers is having support."

The Education Committee of the Montana Legislature heard updates Wednesday on both topics: the status of the CSCT program, which provides mental and behavioral health care to school children through Medicaid but is on the ropes, and a significant increase in schools being unable to hire teachers.

TEACHER RECRUITMENT and retention is a battle, and at least a couple of data points show the problem is at a near-crisis point, according to a presentation from the Office of Public Instruction.

"You will see that there has been a significant impact on that crisis, if you will, on retention and recruitment heading into COVID, but after COVID it has been" exacerbated, said Julie Murgel, school innovation and improvement senior manager at OPI.

In 2021, the Office of Public Instruction received the most requests for "emergency authorizations" of teacher hires since at least 2005; districts request emergency authorizations when they exhaust all possibilities for hiring a licensed educator and get permission to bring on a teacher without the certification.

The number hit 120 in 2021, jumping from 23 in 2017, and 43, 94 and 84 the following years, according to the presentation from Crystal Andrews, educator licensure director at OPI. Previous years were often in the single digits or even zero.

"As you can see in the data this past year, our number is at its highest it's ever been, significantly," Andrews said.

And the number of schools with non-licensed teachers is at an "all-time high," having jumped from 69 in 2019-20 to 136 in 2020-21, Andrews said. She also noted a critical shortage in teachers seeking initial licenses in "fields of critical endorsement," such as art, math, English and music.

"Our key points in this data is there's a significant reduction in elementary education from 600 teachers (in 2019) to 470 teachers (in 2020) and that special education is at the lowest it has been in four years," she said.

Additionally, since 2016-17, initial teacher licensure has dropped and is at the lowest it has been "by a significant amount," at 1,251 compared to roughly 1,400 to 1,600 in the other years, she said. Meanwhile, one of the largest school districts in the state is hiring more than 70 teachers for just this school year.

"Anything that we can do to help encourage the field of education and get teachers back into the classroom, that's my goal," Andrews said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said Montana faces the issue in part because of its rural nature. She also said it's important to be flexible with schools and clear hurdles.

"There's discrimination against those out-of-state teachers in our state licensing," Arntzen said.

She did not elaborate, and OPI did not respond to a request for additional information. However, the Montana Legislature did not pass at least one bill that would have required the state to certify any teacher "in good standing" elsewhere, legislation opponents said cut into Montana's standards, such as having a bachelor's degree from an accredited university.

In legislator discussion, though, Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, said there's a clear marketing opportunity because teaching in Montana is better than teaching in a place like Chicago, for instance.

"Montana is such a great place to come," Reksten said.

OPI ALSO gave lawmakers an update on its attempt to right the Comprehensive School and Community Treatment program, and members of the public urged the state to work quickly to make sure children could continue to receive mental and behavioral health care through their schools.

Fladmo said she knows the agencies are working hard, but providers are nervous about their jobs because the clock is ticking on contracts.

In the past, schools could provide a required CSCT match with in-kind support, such as laptops or staff time, but this year, they learned a hard match appeared to be required instead.

Sharyl Allen, deputy superintendent at OPI, said a proposed solution that schools contribute a hard match and then receive a reimbursement that covers both the cost of the service and cost of the match didn't fly with OPI's audit and legal staff. She described it as "a slippery slope" and said OPI would not recommend that option.

"That's been our big challenge area," Allen said.

But Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, wanted to know if the legal counsel at DPHHS had the same opinion given its close work with Medicaid, and DPHHS agreed to inquire. The puzzle includes figuring out a pay rate providers will accept, rate Medicaid will reimburse, source of local funds, and administrative cost, which DPHHS noted it only recently received from OPI.

In the past, DPHHS oversaw the CSCT program, and last year, it paid the required match during the pandemic. But the money is not in the general fund. The Montana Legislature directed OPI and DPHHS to sort out the matter with CMS and school districts, and it provided $2.2 million as "bridge" money to keep the program going for a couple of months. The idea was that the state could work out a reimbursement plan that would cover costs with federal money.

Going forward, though, OPI said districts need to pony up the money. Allen said they can either pay for the program fully with federal coronavirus relief aid, or find non-federal dollars for a 35 percent match, such as money from a permissive levy or tax credit.

Time is running short because contracts with providers need to be renegotiated.

At the meeting, OPI officials pushed back on suggestions the agency was lagging. Allen said OPI had no idea until the spring that it would need to take on administration with DPHHS, and she said the agency already had been talking to other states, but the match requirement comes from the feds.

The agencies will resolve the problem, said DPHHS' Marie Matthews. Matthews, Medicaid and health services branch manager, said the agencies would land on the same page despite the current challenges.

"It is a slog to get there," she said. "Absolutely. We are going through growing pains. But we will get there."