By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – At a special meeting of the Big Sky School District board Aug. 7, the first order of business was a discussion of losing one of their candidates for a fifth grade teacher position, leaving the district only 20 days to fill the spot before school commences Aug. 28.
Although they had received written commitment from the candidate, after deeper consideration of the housing limitations and overall expense of living in Big Sky, he rescinded his decision.
“We spend a significant amount time talking with our candidates, vetting and interviewing,” said Superintendent Dustin Shipman. “Usually we’re there with 90 percent of our applicants, then it comes down to ‘What is my life really going to look like in [Big Sky]?’” Shipman added that it isn’t simply the financial burden of living in Big Sky that is a deterrent to prospective employees, but the sheer lack of housing available.
“Sooner or later people have to do the calculation,” he said.
The district filled the fifth grade teacher position on Aug. 14 with Bradi Watkins, a Montana State University graduate from Helena, but difficulty finding a bus driver is ongoing. Half a dozen members of the Karst community, whose bus route will be suspended until they find another driver, were on hand to voice their concerns. Karst is approximately 7.5 miles north of Big Sky on Highway 191.
Shipman explained that the most rural routes serving the least number of children are cancelled first. Transportation services for students in the Black Butte and 320 Ranch areas south of Big Sky on Highway 191 have already been discontinued.
“We’re sending you a bus as soon as we find a driver,” said Loren Bough, chair of the Big Sky School District Board of Trustees.
Bough added that they’re facing the same challenges when it comes to hiring—and retaining—teachers, coaches and drivers.
“The housing crisis here is affecting us in all three of those categories,” he said. “It’s a Big Sky problem.”
BSSD made eight new teacher hires for the 2017-2018 school year after losing multiple employees, including Spanish teacher Keith McHugh who resigned after two years; athletic director and technology teacher Matt Bakken; and fifth grade teacher Michaella Croskey. Shipman noted that they were all commuters.
“I think we have good data that indicates the shelf life of commuters,” said Shipman, making a direct correlation between people opting to commute and the cost and availability of housing in Big Sky.
“Sooner or later you want to be a homeowner,” Shipman said. “You don’t want roommates … you want to move into adulthood. This is probably one of the top places in the world to raise a family, but you have to be able to live here.”
He said securing “support staff” is the most challenging of all, referencing the limited custodial staff the district has been operating with.
“It’s the army of people that keep everything rolling behind the scenes,” Shipman said. “Kitchen people, bus drivers … [a lack of drivers] is the most glaring because it has the most direct impact on the families.”
Read introductory profiles of the eight new Big Sky School District faculty members in a special back-to-school section in the Sept. 1 issue of EBS.