By Jack Reaney ASSOCIATE EDITOR
Big Sky School District teachers and staff have a new nonprofit in their corner.
The Big Sky Public Education Support Fund was created to help retain Big Sky’s educators and school district staff. The nonprofit will provide financial assistance to offset the area’s high cost of living, expand opportunities for participation in local recreation activities and decrease the cost of professional development for public school staff. BSPESF formed in September 2022 with the goal of enhancing the quality of life and well-being of Big Sky School District public school teachers and staff, and recently gained 501(c)(3) status, according to a Dec. 12 press release from BSPESF.
The organization was founded by Matt Dodd along with Seth Barker, Kevin Daily, Jen Guenther, and Betsey Stewart, who serve as BSPESF board members.
In 2023, Montana’s average starting salary for public educators was the lowest in the U.S. at $33,568. Average overall salary is 44th in the nation, at $53,628, according to the National Education Association. In Montana, school district salary is constrained by tax revenue which correlates with student enrollment. Even with collective bargaining through the local teachers’ union and the Big Sky School District’s continued efforts to pay teachers as much as possible, the district is not able to increase staff pay enough to match the area’s high cost of living.
“Despite this low pay, Big Sky public school educators contend with a cost of living comparable to cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. The Big Sky Chamber’s recent Cost of Living Analysis—comparing the cost of groceries, housing, healthcare, transportation, and misc. goods and services—found that that it costs 79.8% more to live in Big Sky than the average American city,” the release stated, also noting that 78% of Big Sky’s workforce commutes.
Dodd, BSPESF president and chairman, told EBS the organization is aimed at helping teachers and staff enjoy and participate in the beautiful area, and retaining talented and motivated staff. BSPESF will not supplement school district salaries but intends to otherwise enable staff to enjoy living and working in Big Sky.
Dodd explained that the nonprofit adds flexibility to the capabilities of the Big Sky School District and school board to support its staff—the independent organization is not subject to the same budgetary considerations, some contained in state law, that may prevent certain fundraising and quality of life programs. Dodd is also a school board member, and said BSPESF is supplementary and collaborative with Big Sky’s PTO and school board.
“We’re trying to incentivize people to stay, incentivize people to hang around. Because we’ve got great teachers in the community, we’ve got great staff who put in lots of time and care about our kids,” he said. Especially for newer or younger teachers, the need for support may be higher to keep them around for many years.
The nonprofit raised $40,000 in its first year and primarily focused on grants for continuing education and stipends to support housing costs. In the coming year, BSPESF hopes to build on community partnerships to support quality of life. Dodd gave an example: Mac and Carrie Chapin, owners of Big Sky Snowman, a local snow removal service, offered to plow the driveways for any school district staff living in Snowman’s service area, free of charge.
BSPESF created a housing assistance program, similar to an existing quarterly rent assistance program sponsored by Big Sky’s American Legion and the Broken Spoke Bar & Casino. Independent from that program, BSPESF pulls a name out of a hat every quarter and awards a rent or mortgage payment. The goal is to knock down hurdles: housing and continued education are common challenges.
“We know that the money is being used to keep you in the community,” Dodd said. After a teacher’s rent was donated last quarter, Dodd recalled, “I heard from the teacher, I heard from the teacher’s partner, and the teacher’s roommate. They all came and thanked us independently, because it made their life that much easier.”
BSPESF is brainstorming other partnerships and quality of life programs: Dodd envisions gym memberships being donated or discounted; local technicians providing routine car service during the school day, with pick-up and drop-off from the school district parking lot; BSPESF providing fuel cards for commuting teachers; and stipends for teachers to purchase snacks and supplies for students in need—many spend their own money for the kids, Dodd said.
“The more opportunities there are to knock down those hurdles for folks that are working and trying to make it work here. And we know teachers are invested because they’re helping our kids… They’re actually coming here to make a difference and be a part of the community. They’re shaping our community.”
Dodd emphasized that BSPESF is a true nonprofit, with virtually zero operation costs. “I think our overhead is $35 a month for Quickbooks,” he said. Dodd is proud that BSPESF contracted school district graduates for initial marketing and web design: Andrew Robin, Griffin House and Ece Zeyli.
“If you’re cutting us a check, it’s going to go to the teachers,” Dodd said.
Teachers and staff must apply and meet certain qualifications. For donors, contributions can be made anonymously if desired, but BSPESF board member Kevin Daily emphasized that some donors have been thanked by teachers and staff in the community.
“If you donate to us, you get to see your donation get put immediately in the hands of someone that needs it and deserves it,” Daily said. “You can make that personal connection between the donor and the recipient.”