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License fees for Montana teachers slated to increase

by ALEX SAKARIASSEN Montana Free Press
| November 26, 2023 12:00 AM

For the first time in three decades, the price Montana charges public school teachers and other education professionals for state-issued licenses is set to increase. And despite more than a year of debate among state officials over those fees, the change — approved by the Board of Public Education last week — has elicited a mixture of surprise and frustration for many in Montana’s K-12 system.

On Nov. 17, the Board of Public Education formally adopted a fee schedule that more than triples the amount educators pay for new licenses or license renewals. The fee had been fixed at $6 per year since 1991. Now, the cost of a standard teaching license will rise to $70 for five years, plus a $25 tech fee. The increase is even greater for school administrators, psychologists and counselors, who will pay a base fee of $85.

The new amounts may not seem like much. But for teachers, the increase adds to the growing list of pressures on a profession already contending with low pay, a high cost of living and the ever-growing demand to provide more support and services for students.

“It feels like death by a thousand cuts,” Melissa Boys, a social studies teacher and union rep at Missoula’s Big Sky High School, told Montana Free Press in an interview this week. “It’s not that I can’t possibly come up with what is going to end up being approximately $75 extra. But this is just another blow. Montana’s the lowest average starting salary [in the county], so it’s less about the actual dollars than the way it was done and the attitude that you can just kind of squeeze teachers indefinitely and we’ll do it for the kids.”

Montana’s new teacher licensing fees have a complex and politically charged backstory, one that partly began with the Office of Public Instruction’s establishment of a new online licensing system. Last fall, the agency requested that lawmakers redirect the revenue from licensing fees to OPI in order to fund ongoing maintenance of its new TeachMontana system, which went online in June 2022. OPI paid for the system’s development using federal COVID-19 relief funds but informed legislators ahead of the 2023 session that those funds expired in 2024, meaning it needed to find a new source to cover roughly $200,000 in annual system maintenance.

That goal was ultimately accomplished through House Bill 403, which directed Superintendent Elsie Arntzen to recommend a new fee structure to the Board of Public Education that would generate enough money to support her agency’s licensing activities. HB 403 gave the board a deadline of Dec. 1 to adopt new filing fees. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, argued that the changes would honor the teaching profession by bringing its licensing system in line with that of other certified trades and professions in the state. 

Bedey reiterated that point to MTFP this week, noting that HB 403 was modeled on the license funding structure used for scores of other professions by the Department of Labor and Industry.

“In order to be equitable to all Montanans, I think that licensing and the funding of licensing activity should be the same for all professions,” said Bedey, who served on the Hamilton School Board for nine years. “And since I strongly believe that teaching is a profession, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be subject to the same schemes as we have for others.”

Despite her push last year to see license fees redirected to her agency to fund TeachMontana, Arntzen has repeatedly expressed public opposition to any fee increase for teachers. Her final fee recommendation to the board last week did include a fee increase for school administrators, as well as a $25 tech fee for all licensees, but held firm on continuing to charge teachers the historic $6 rate. The proposal would not have funded OPI’s licensing activities solely with license fees as required under HB 403, resulting in what Bedey characterized before the Board of Public Education as a “stalemate.” 

Bedey said he did not anticipate a situation where Arntzen would issue a recommendation that did not meet the law’s requirements or fully fund the agency’s system. But, he added, that’s precisely what happened as the deadline loomed.

“We wouldn’t have been at an eleventh-hour sort of thing if the superintendent had put forward a reasonable license fee proposal in August or September,” Bedey said. “The superintendent of public instruction failed to do her duty.”

In place of Arntzen’s recommendation, the Board of Public Education approved a fee schedule developed and drafted by its own members. Executive Director McCall Flynn told MTFP that the board found itself between “a rock and a hard place.” And while one member suggested taking more time to work with Arntzen and OPI, Flynn said she doubts the outcome would have changed had the board done so.

“The board knew that it had a job to do by Dec. 1 and didn’t think that the outcome would be any different, so they made the decisions that they did,” Flynn said. “That’s not to say that there couldn’t be an opportunity in the future to reflect on the decision and see where we’re at. I would hope that there’s an opportunity in the future to decrease those fees again.”

Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, whose organization represents the bulk of public school employees in the state, called the fee increase “disappointing” and “tone deaf” in a phone call with MTFP this week. Unlike other professions, Curtis argued, teaching is enshrined in the Montana Constitution as part of its guarantee of a free, quality education. That’s a guarantee Curtis said should put the cost of teacher licensing squarely on the state — a belief she’s not alone in espousing.

“Our state needs to be very mindful of what is required by our Constitution and by statute in delivering education, public education to Montanans, and we need to take that into consideration,” Arntzen said in an interview, adding “dentists or morticians or landscape architects — any of those [professions] that are licensed — they are not in the Constitution, are they?”

Arntzen also noted that the new fee schedule increases the cost for an emergency authorization license, which has grown in popularity in recent years as school districts struggle to fill staffing needs with educators who may not meet all of Montana’s regular teacher licensing requirements. The fee for those licenses is actually set in a section of law unchanged by HB 403, a potential conflict Arntzen said she’d alerted the Board of Public Education to on Monday. Bedey acknowledged that the emergency authorization fee was an oversight in the drafting of HB 403. However, he questioned why Arntzen did not raise the issue with lawmakers or the board until now.

“I would have preferred to address this during the session,” Bedey said. “The way the law stands now, the license fee should be set at $6 for the emergency fees. The superintendent failed to bring this to the attention of either the Legislature or the Board of Public Education until after the Board of Education had to make its decision.”

For teachers, the messages sent during this licensing fee saga have been discouraging. Cole Bass, band director at East Helena High School, said the fee hike is just “adding another hurdle” for teachers who are already “under the microscope” and often dip into their own wallets to pay for classroom essentials. Boys, in Missoula, added the whole plan seems “poorly thought out.” 

“Teachers are the caulk that’s expected to shrink and expand to make everything else work, and it’s just not fair,” Boys said. “We’re just not in a position to do that.”

Montana Free Press reporter Alex Sakariassen can be reached at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.