Board of Public Ed member to OPI: ‘Focus … on retention’

Board hears staffing, hiring update from Office of Public Instruction

By: - November 19, 2021 2:02 pm

(Illustration by Getty Images)

In the wake of significant turnover at the Montana Office of Public Instruction, members of the Board of Public Education quizzed the deputy superintendent this week on staff openings, and at least one recommended the agency focus on retaining employees.

“There’s a lot to be said for looking into job satisfaction and retention,” said board member Susie Hedalen, of Townsend.

A report this month from the Montana Free Press said 180 employees have left OPI in the last five years during Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s tenure for a turnover of almost 90 percent. OPI counted 44 staff departures this year alone including one death, the Free Press said.

At a meeting Thursday, board members heard an OPI staffing report from Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen, who shared the status of recruitment and hiring at the agency of 202.32 full time equivalents, or FTE. Allen noted some of the challenges faced by OPI and addressed questions and comments from board members.

Hedalen, who said she wanted to be clear that the board appreciates the work taking place at OPI, also noted many “highly qualified” people in special education were among those who had departed — leaving tough-to-fill positions.

“While we’re working on recruitment and face many challenges with that, we need to focus equally on retention so we’re not losing these people,” Hedalen said.

In a follow up question, Chairwoman Tammy Lacey, of Fairfield, said she wanted to know if OPI asked employees their reasons for leaving: “Does the OPI HR department conduct exit interviews of people that are leaving to be able to gain that kind of insight?”

Allen said some employees choose to do exit interviews, but others don’t wish to do so: “That opportunity is available, but that is always at the employees’ choice.”

However, Allen also said OPI isn’t alone in its recruitment challenges, especially since the pandemic, and employers in other industries are struggling as well. A staffing report she presented showed OPI counts 154 FTE funded by the Montana Legislature with 130 FTE filled as of Nov. 1.

Of the roughly 15 FTE under recruitment, she said five positions have been recommended for hire with four acceptances; four remain under recruitment; and three are in the interview process. She said three positions have been advertised but have yet to yield job candidates.

As for other openings at OPI, Allen said some positions are vacant at this point because they will undergo modification, and some jobs will remain open.

“We would hope that excellent people would stay forever,” Allen said. “In fact, I’m looking at folks on this call that I know succumbed to the ‘r’ word, which I think is just a word to go have a different adventure for a while.”

But the average age of an employee at OPI is 50.1, according to the state human resources office, Allen said. So she anticipates that other employees also will contemplate retirement sooner or later, although regardless, she said the vacancy rate will never hit zero.

The report from OPI shows the openings are across the agency, and in many cases just one position is open in a division; the report presented the status of only the 154 FTE funded by the Legislature. However, the report noted the Special Education division counts five open positions out of 22 FTE, and Allen said OPI is going to extraordinary lengths to find candidates for the director post.

A headhunter is scouring Montana after three advertisements through the state yielded no qualified candidates for Special Education director, she said. She said the different retirement system is the top barrier for people who retired from the school system to take a job at OPI, although the board chair said rollovers are a solution. OPI has looked outside Montana for a Special Education director as well, but Allen said the advertised salary of $79,000 is roughly $40,000 below market, and just one person has applied.

“I believe that is our most challenging position right now,” Allen said.

The problem of pay isn’t unique to that position, though, and it’s widespread in the field, said board member Mary Heller, of Havre: “We all know we don’t pay our teachers enough. We certainly don’t pay OPI staffers (for) the work they do enough. That’s an education problem all across the board.”

In the past, Allen said the staffing report has gone to the board every six months, but she will offer an update more frequently if the board wants to stay abreast of hiring at the agency.

OPI staffing report-pages-458-459

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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