Two to three nights a week, Josh Mueller, first-grade teacher at Sunnyside Elementary, would get off work at 4 p.m. and start his second job waiting tables at Applebee’s at 5.
“I’d leave at 4:30 and kiss my daughter good-bye, and I didn’t see her again until morning,” he said.
The reason? As a teacher in Great Falls Public Schools, he and his wife, who also works, can’t afford a modest mortgage, health insurance and daycare on their two salaries.
“It’s been a struggle to hire teachers here,” said Kerry Dattilo, who has been the director of human resources at Great Falls Public Schools for two years.
“It is difficult to fill all the positions we have with qualified teachers.”
Why is it so hard?
One of the main reasons: The pay.
Starting pay for the Great Falls Public Schools is only $34,363.
“Great Falls is lower than some A, B and C schools,” said Dattilo.
The school district attends job fairs in Missoula, Bozeman, and Billings, and she sees what she’s up against.
“It’s very difficult to attract people to come here when salaries are as low as they are,” she said.
Datillo personally knows many teachers who have a second or even third job to make ends meet.
“They are working at restaurants at night after teaching all day. They leave their own kids to work at night when they’ve been teaching other people’s children all day because they have to supplement their $34,000 a year job,” Dattilo said. “I feel like that’s a shameful thing.”
Datillo said that based on years prior, the district is going to need to recruit between 40 and 60 teachers a year.
“That need is never going to change, and we have to get more competitive if we want to keep up with the demand,” she said.
Mueller was excited to get a job offer from Great Falls Public Schools four years ago.
He’d struggled to get a job in Coeur d’Alene’s school district, where he and his new bride had moved after he graduated from the University of Montana the year before.
He was told he needed experience, but he needed a job to get that experience.
He and his wife, Rachel, who was working as a cosmetologist, quickly found the starting salary for Great Falls Public Schools was not going to be enough to purchase a home.
“We were in the process of trying to buy a home, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to make the mortgage without a second job,” he said.
So Mueller started working at Applebee’s two to three nights a week, waiting tables to help them afford a home.
And if not for a great program, the Muellers still wouldn’t have been able to afford a house.
The program, Good Neighbor Next Door, places teachers, firefighters, emergency service workers, and police in homes in revitalization areas with a significant incentive. If the purchaser stays in the home for three years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development pays off half the mortgage.
“That’s the only way we could afford a house,” Mueller said.
The home needed a lot of work when they purchased it and isn’t in a great neighborhood, but when they sell, it will give them the equity they need for a down payment on another home.
“It’s hard to get that down payment,” Mueller said, “But the down payment in this program was low.”
In May, Rachel Mueller had to leave her preferred profession to find a job with the City of Great Falls, which offers good health insurance benefits. Both the Muellers were still on their parents’ insurance in order to make ends meet, but when they turned 26, they needed to find their own.
Though GFPS does supplement some of the bill for its employees, the Muellers would still have had to pay $850 a month for medical, dental and vision for the two of them and their 2-year-old daughter if they chose to get on the district’s plan.
“$850 is a monster of a bill, especially when you add in daycare,” said Mueller.
“We’ve held off on a second baby because we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Dattilo’s job has not been easy.
In the last two years, the district has had to leave positions open when the school year started because they couldn’t attract qualified candidates.
She just recently was able to fill the empty positions that, for the first semester, were being taught by substitutes.
“I’m nervous about the upcoming year. We have two teachers who plan to retire who are in real specialized spots. It’s going to be difficult,” she said.
Those fresh out of student teaching seem less concerned about their pay, but when teachers get some experience, they aren’t looking to take a pay cut to come to Great Falls, Dattillo explained.
Out of state districts entice Montana grads with free health insurance and sign-on bonuses.
And many college kids grow accustomed to the city they went to school in, and they want to stay. And why wouldn’t they stay and teach in Missoula or Bozeman when they can live where they want and make more money, too?
“We sometimes get interest from out of state, and they end up turning the job down because of salary,” Dattillo added.
It’s the intangibles that teachers love about the district – amazing teams, leadership and support.
“I think we have some of the best teachers in the country, but how do you express that to someone who has never been here – they are looking at salaries and health insurance, so it makes it hard to compete.”
Dattillo, who has two kids in the GFPS district, said she feels confident and proud that her kids are in Great Falls Public Schools.
“I think selling the intangibles is very difficult,” she said. “Other districts are saying the same thing – plus they are offering more money.”
For Josh Mueller, who was inspired by great teachers in his youth, his next step is getting his master’s degree so he can earn more money teaching.
He had to cut back his shifts at Applebee’s to find time to study, and instead picked up a third job selling Pampered Chef, since it’s more flexible than the shift work at the restaurant.
He is passionate about his job.
“I want to inspire kids to become something they never thought possible,” he said.
“There’s a lot of them that haven’t had a fair shake at life so far, and it is important that they don’t lose that confidence in themselves to do great things.”