The state’s new Western U.S. House district is uncharted political territory. Nine candidates are trying to map a path to victory.

Montana 2022 US House race candidate feature
Credit: Photo illustration by Melissa McFarlin / MTFP

For the first time in decades, Montanans are considering a ballot with two new federal congressional districts — a division based on population gains documented by the 2020 census. Neither district comes with a pat political history or clear electoral forecast. But in the inaugural June 7 primary for Montana’s House District 1, the Western District, at least one element isn’t in short supply: political diversity. 

The nine candidates in District 1 — a jagged ‘C’ encompassing Glacier County, Kalispell, Missoula, the Bitterroot Valley, Butte and Gallatin County — are as ideologically varied as the population they seek to represent. 

On the conservative side of the field, the Republican candidates are former U.S. Rep. and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, former state Sen. Al Olszewski, Kalispell pastor Mary Todd, high school government teacher Matt Jette, and Whitefish homebuilder Mitch Heuer. Bozeman activist John Lamb is running as a Libertarian.

The candidates on the liberal side of the spectrum are Democrats Cora Neumann, a public health advocate from Bozeman; Missoula attorney Monica Tranel; and former state Rep. Tom Winter.

2022 election guide

Unlike states in which voters register with a specific political party and only pick between candidates on that party’s ballot, Montana has open primaries. Any voter can cast a ballot in any one party’s primary. 

Historically, that open primary system has “allowed a lot of different types of candidates and viewpoints to be in these races,” said Jessi Bennion, a political science professor at Montana State University. This year, she said, the race is “crowded on both sides.”

For many candidates on the ballot, the new Western district is a blank canvas on which they can project their preferred political characterization. Without public polling on the district, the candidates point to internal research, campaign advisers and anecdotal interactions with voters to support their analysis. But even the most confident candidates concede that the political contours of the Western district won’t begin to emerge until the results roll in on June 7. 


To understand the dynamics of the Western district, Bennion suggests taking some national ratings into account. As of May 19, the Cook Political Report listed the state’s House District 1 as “Likely Republican,” the most secure ranking for conservatives, with a seven-point margin.

But while 2020 election outcomes painted Montana solidly red, Bennion said the Western district “can be competitive for Democrats” given Montana’s long history of electing both Republicans and Democrats to state and federal offices.

“Maybe that Cook Political ranking doesn’t quite capture everything, but something is going on there,” Bennion said. “I would probably put Lean Republican,” a slightly more moderate rating, she said.

Ryan Zinke
Republican candidate Ryan Zinke. Credit: Courtesy of Zinke campaign

Bennion and several candidates have tagged Zinke as the race’s apparent frontrunner, citing his high name recognition and significant fundraising lead. As of the most recent financial filings from April, Zinke reported more than $1.2 million on hand and roughly the same amount spent on the race so far. 

Zinke has also clinched the support of former President Donald Trump, Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte. In a 10-minute public call-in held in mid-May, Trump touted Zinke’s accomplishments during his time at the Department of the Interior — from which Zinke resigned under a slew of ethics investigations after roughly two years — and said the candidate had his “complete and total endorsement.” 

But if other candidates in the field are any indication, not all conservatives are rallying behind Zinke. The former congressman drew four Republican challengers who have spent much of their time on the campaign trail criticizing the presumptive frontrunner. Three of those contenders — Todd, Heuer and Olszewski — are from the Flathead Valley that Zinke also calls home and are attempting to flank him from the right on several issues, including election security, abortion and immigration.

Olszewski, who has previously run unsuccessfully for Congress and the governorship, has emerged as Zinke’s most vocal Republican critic. In advertisements, debate appearances and interviews, Olszewski has framed Zinke as insufficiently conservative, a characterization the former congressman has dismissed.

“What I’m doing is I’m holding him accountable to his voting record,” Olszewski said in a May interview with Montana Free Press. “He will tell you that he’s very conservative. But when you look at his voting record in Congress, he’s a big-government Republican, I think is the best way to put it.”

Republican candidate Al “Doc” Olszewski in Kalispell on May 10, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / Montana Free Press

Having represented constituents in the Kalispell region during his roughly five years in the state Legislature, Olszewski said he’s hopeful that his political brand — tough on immigration, critical of federal spending, bullish on election regulations and staunchly anti-abortion — will resonate with conservative voters throughout the Western district.

“We have different candidates that espouse different agendas, or what makes them look to be the best candidate to be our next congressman,” Olszewski said. “And we’re going to find out [on June 7] if what I’m espousing or what I’m promoting is not what people want.”

Jette, a Republican candidate from Missoula, is positioning himself as a more moderate option for voters who don’t identify with the “red meat” platforms he says have been touted by Zinke, Olszewski, Todd and Heuer. He is also hoping to appeal to voters disillusioned with Zinke’s scandal-tinged resignation from the Trump administration. An internal investigation from the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released in February found that Zinke had misused his official position and “did not comply with ethical obligations and duty of candor,” but “did not substantiate the allegation that Secretary Zinke violated Federal conflict of interest laws.”  

“We have different candidates that espouse different agendas, or what makes them look to be the best candidate to be our next congressman. And we’re going to find out if what I’m espousing or what I’m promoting is not what people want.”


“Everyone’s already made up their opinion on Zinke, positive and negative,” Jette said in a May interview. “I’m [betting] that the negatives are much higher than the positives.”

Zinke’s campaign staff declined to make him available for an interview with MTFP or allow a reporter access to campaign events in April and early May. He also did not attend several debates and forums in April and May where candidates were invited to speak. But in campaign materials and other interviews, Zinke’s campaign has defended his record in the Trump administration and, at times, expressed displeasure with the attacks against him.

“My concern, if I have one, is the Republican Party. We have to lead and you have to lead with integrity,” Zinke said in a May interview with KGVO’s Montana Talks program, addressing criticisms from members of his own party. “We can have discussions on policy, but the tone is, I think, a little over the line.”


For the three Democratic candidates in the race, Zinke isn’t the only factor that makes a victory in the Western district seem like an uphill climb. In 2020, Democrats up and down the ballot were unequivocally rejected by voters in favor of Republican contenders. The race for Montana’s then sole congressional seat, among others, was not close. Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale beat Democrat Kathleen Williams by nearly 13 points.

“We can have discussions on policy, but the tone is, I think, a little over the line.”


While that election cycle still makes some Montana progressives wince, the Neumann, Tranel and Winter campaigns are trying to convince supporters that Montana’s politics won’t be defined by the results of one election.

“I think that people are yearning to connect with our communities again” after years of a “polarizing” political climate, Tranel said in a recent interview. “People want to shovel your neighbor’s walk even if they don’t vote the same way. That’s the Montana I grew up in and love and know. And I think that’s very much alive and well.”

In their own ways, the Democratic candidates are chasing the hope of a purple electorate in which voters, particularly those who lean conservative, are less beholden to party lines. 


Democratic candidate Monica Tranel in Butte on May 3, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / Montana Free Press

Tranel, an energy and environmental attorney who grew up in eastern and central Montana, avoids labeling herself a progressive or dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, sometimes quipping on the campaign trail that she represents “the party of Montana.” Tranel previously campaigned for the Public Service Commission on both Republican and Democratic tickets — first in 2004 and later in 2020. She served a stint as a legislative aide to Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns in the early 2000s and was endorsed last year by former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. In a recent debate in Missoula, Tranel said it’s essential that Montana Democrats campaign on issues that engage progressive, moderate and conservative voters alike. 

“There is no path to victory on a Democrat-only platform. We’ve got to have the persuadable voters, we have to energize our base,” she said during the event. “It’s both.”

“I think really primary issues of quality of life and affordability is what it comes back to again and again. And that’s what I am going to stay focused on.”


The other two Democratic candidates in the race are also using their backgrounds to try to appeal to a wide array of voters. Neumann, who grew up in Bozeman and spent most of her career advocating for public health and rural economic development across the U.S. and abroad, returned to Bozeman with her family in 2019. Neumann’s campaign rhetoric points to affordable housing and health care as kitchen table issues that can build broad constituencies across the Western district. 

“Every town I go to, no matter how small it is, is experiencing a housing crisis or real serious pressure around housing,” Neumann said in a May interview. “It’s not just Bozeman and Missoula and Kalispell, it is all of our towns across the state … It’s a vicious cycle that is really deteriorating the fabric of our communities.”

Democratic candidate Cora Neumann in Kalispell on May 10, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / Montana Free Press

Despite the hot-button issues that have gripped and divided national politics in recent years, Neumann said she believes her focus on economic issues is a unifying strategy. 

“I think really primary issues of quality of life and affordability is what it comes back to again and again,” she said. “And that’s what I am going to stay focused on.”

Winter, a Polson resident who describes himself as a progressive populist, is also looking to engage voters about issues that are relevant to their daily lives. 

In 2018 Winter defeated a Republican incumbent to represent a legislative district northwest of Missoula. He said his success was the result of prioritizing the interests of his constituents rather than parroting nationalized talking points from the major political parties. When he knocks on the door of someone who supported Trump, Winter said, that voter may also believe that “if they get breast cancer, that they should not have to go through a medical bankruptcy and lose their house.” 

“There is no path to victory on a Democrat-only platform. We’ve got to have the persuadable voters, we have to energize our base. It’s both.”


“People are rightfully disenchanted with the system as it is, and rightfully disenchanted with the parties that have brought the system into being,” Winter said in a May interview. As a self-described progressive candidate in Montana, Winter said his strategy is to “ask and speak about fundamental values and questions that the government can provide and protect you from.”

Bennion said the unification strategy pushed by Democrats isn’t surprising after the party’s tough year in 2020.

“Montana Democrats have kind of a tricky situation. They know that the electorate in Montana is pretty conservative. They have seen the trends. And so they’re trying to find the issues that they can speak to and probably sticking away from broad cultural issues,” she said. 


Election officials began mailing ballots last week. With June 7 looming, Western district candidates are in full-fledged campaign mode — advertisements and videos are popping up on television and social media platforms, endorsements are stacking up, and public forums are continuing. 

“People are rightfully disenchanted with the system as it is, and rightfully disenchanted with the parties that have brought the system into being.”


As candidates expend resources trying to connect with voters, Bennion said the primary is largely an opportunity for the electorate to define the political parameters of an untested district. Nearly all the major cities represented by the Western House seat have seen population growth in recent years, with Kalispell leading the pack. 

“That’s a big deal when Kalispell is growing. And I want to know what kind of voter that is. Who is moving there?” Bennion said. “And so I’m interested in what that’s going to do to our politics.”

According to current voter rolls, that population growth seems likely to factor into upcoming turnout. Flathead County added 3,681 residents between July 2020 and July 2021. Assuming that trend has held steady in the past year, the growth nearly matches an increase in voter registration — as of May 19, there were 7,428 more registered voters in Flathead County than on primary day 2020.

The same holds true for Gallatin County, which gained 3,211 residents in the calendar year between 2020 and 2021. As of this week, the county has 7,599 more registered voters than there were in June two years ago.

But whether those voters show up for a primary election in an midterm year — let alone for a newly created district — is wholly unknown, as is who voters might decide to support. For those answers, June 7 remains tantalizingly far away. 



Reduced work hours, low pay cited against backdrop of rising housing prices

May 19, 2022

 The logo of the Yellowstone News Guild.


The newsroom employees at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle have voted unanimously to certify the Yellowstone Newspaper Guild. It becomes the second daily newspaper in the state to form a union in the past three years.

Eight out of eight newsroom employees voted in the mail ballot election, which was administered by the National Labor Relations Board through its regional office in Seattle. The ballots were sent on April 25 and counted Tuesday, according to the Yellowstone Newspaper Guild.

The Yellowstone News Guild will join the Denver Newspaper Guild-Communication Workers of America Local 37074.

Staff members at the Daily Chronicle said that two factors played a part in its unionizing efforts, a reduction of hours that originally started with the COVID-19 pandemic, which have never been fully reversed, and the soaring cost of housing in the rapidly growing community.

Seven out of the eight staff members started with the newspaper after 2020, and joined around the time when Adams Publishing Group, the owners of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, cut newsroom hours down to 30 per week. Since then, staff writer Nora Shelly said, the hours have increased to 35 and then again to 37.5 per week. Recently, communication with management indicates that the 37.5-hour work week will become standard.

A recent handout put on newsroom employees’ desks that was unsigned said that Adams intends to continue the practice of reduced hours. Shelly said that while most staff members try to manage hours to the 37.5 workweek, most put in extra time in order to bring news to the readers and community.

Calls to Adams Publishing and emails were not returned to the Daily Montanan.

Other factors leading to the formation of the union include rapidly rising housing prices. While housing prices have soared quickly in many Montana communities, few, if any, have seen the meteoric rise of housing that has been seen in Gallatin County. pegs Bozeman’s median house price in April 2022 at $849,000 and the median condominium at $515,000.

Shelly said Daily Chronicle staffers are offered as little as $16.50 per hour to start in the newsroom, a starting wage that is often lower than those at fast-food restaurants or even big-box retailers.

Shelly said that reporters were generally happy with the local management, including the editor and publisher, but felt like their concerns were not heard by the out-of-state management at Adams Publishing Group.

“We don’t have any gripes with our editor or publisher,” Shelly said. “But we’re not really heard at the company level.”

She said raises that were given out did not cover the loss of paid hours or even the cost of living increase, meaning most of the employees were falling farther behind than when they began working in Bozeman.

“A responsive company would recognize a cost-of-living adjustment has to be made,” she said.

The union will now sit down with Adams representatives, who Shelly said have committed to bargaining in good faith. No timeline has been set, but she said guild members are reviewing contracts, preparing for the bargaining sessions.

“We love it here, and we’re hoping to negotiate a contract as quickly as we can,” Shelly said. “We want to make it a place we can stay and we want it to be where we can stay as long as we can.”

In a statement by the entire guild, it urges the Minnesota-based company to stop dragging its feet.

“Our guild members cannot wait for corporate delaying tactics,” it said. “Our need for better working conditions is immediate.”

The Billings Gazette newsroom unionized in 2020.

Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

The Hechinger Report
This story also appeared in The Hechinger Report

But on a recent spring morning, most teachers kept the roller shades in their classrooms down, hoping to focus students’ attention away from the nearly nonstop construction happening next door.

Lori Degenhart, principal of Story Creek, which opened a new campus last August, scanned the sunny vista from a second-grade classroom that overlooks swiftly vanishing ranchland. Bulldozers and dump trucks were clearing the way for an estimated 7,000 houses that will fill with families over the next few years.

“Where will we put all those kids?” she muttered to herself.

A bulldozer sits idle during a break on construction of new homes near Story Creek Elementary School in Belgrade. An estimated 7,000 homes will be built around the new school over the coming years. Credit: Neal Morton / The Hechinger Report 

Over the last decade, enrollment in Belgrade and the 15 other school districts in Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman, swelled by 21% to 14,162 students as of October — significantly outpacing the statewide growth of just 4% in that time. The surging enrollment comes with some benefits: More students mean more state funding to hire more teachers, and new homeowners pay taxes to help build new schools, like Story Creek.

But there are also new headaches.

“How do we staff schools if no one can afford to live here?” said Degenhart, noting the spiraling cost of housing that has made hiring educators difficult. “It’s hard when you grow so fast.”

In Bozeman and other small cities like it across the West, the population is exploding faster than schools can keep up. Once a mostly rural county known as a sleepy outdoor paradise, Gallatin saw the number of residents rise by nearly a third in a decade, to almost 120,000 in 2020, as people relocated for new construction and tech jobs and a seemingly better quality of life. And the pandemic “sent everything into hyperdrive,” according to one principal: Bozeman, a city of 53,000, added 3,211 residents between July 2020 and July 2021.

That rapid growth, however, threatens the reputation — and sustainability — of its public schools.

The new Story Creek Elementary School in Belgrade opened in fall 2021. After winter break, the school enrolled enough new kindergartners to require the hiring of a fifth kindergarten teacher. Credit: Neal Morton / The Hechinger Report 

School district leaders there, many of whom started their careers in small-town classrooms, now grapple with big-city problems: large class sizes, stretched budgets, crowded school buildings and too few staff, especially those with the cultural and language skills to serve the region’s diversifying student base. A tight labor market has made it even harder to hire and retain educators, as soaring housing costs — the median sales price of a single-family home in Gallatin County reached nearly $900,000 earlier this year — push more students and teachers alike into homelessness.

At the same time, the ballooning population in Gallatin County and across the state is testing the will of voters to fund education. Montana spends about $12,000 per student, putting it in the bottom half of states. It’s one of just two states (the other being Mississippi) that sets no money aside for English learners, despite increasing numbers of those students arriving in schools each day. And this fall, a proposed ballot initiative to cap local property taxes could complicate the task of serving an influx of students and curb education funding for many years to come.

“Before, we could slow down, step back and re-examine if a kid’s struggling,” said Nora Martin, elementary librarian for Bozeman’s Monforton school district, which more than doubled in size over the past 10 years. “Now we have to be on the same page on the same date and move everyone along at the same pace. Someone’s gonna get left behind.”

Bozeman is among dozens of small cities across the American West where population is skyrocketing, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of decennial U.S. Census Bureau data released in September 2021. Others include Cedar City, Utah; Twin Falls, Idaho; and Carlsbad, New Mexico — all of which are located in counties that saw total and childhood populations surge by double digits between 2010 and 2020.

Development in Cedar City and the surrounding county has sent the local school board scrambling to approve attendance boundary changes and relieve some of the overcrowding in high-growth neighborhoods. An Idaho nonprofit group identified Twin Falls — where student enrollment is projected to rise by an additional 17% through the end of this decade — as a potential growth market for new charter schools. In Carlsbad, voters approved $80 million for new schools in 2019 and school officials may return to the ballot box next year for additional funds as southeast New Mexico’s booming economy continues to draw new people.

Despite the growth in Bozeman, natives and newcomers alike almost universally refer to it as a small town. And their accounts offer a glimpse of the growing pains that have already arrived — or will soon — in booming communities across Western states.

In one basement room, three teens waited quietly for Susan Davis, the Belgrade School District’s English language coordinator. A world map hanging on one wall showed two locations marked with red dots: Chihuahua and Tepic, Mexico — the hometowns of two of the young men who needed some help with homework.

Susan Davis, right, helps students during study hall at Belgrade High School. Davis, the Belgrade School District’s English language coordinator, divides her time between three campuses. Credit: Neal Morton / The Hechinger Report 

One student, Francisco, asked Davis for advice on his drawing of a pair of Air Jordans, part of an assignment on persuasive appeals for his argumentative writing class.

“Teacher, what can I put for ‘pathos?’ ” he asked in Spanish.

“‘Pathos’ is emotion, so what should I feel if I’m wearing these shoes,” Davis explained.

“You want to feel what it’s like to be the best,” wrote Francisco.

He’d moved to Belgrade in July 2020, when his father joined a surge of immigrants and refugees seeking high-paying construction and hospitality jobs in the nearby ski resort of Big Sky. He’s also one of nearly 4,000 students learning English in Montana’s schools — a 27% jump in four years.

“It’s too much people here,” Francisco said of his classes. “In Mexico, my biggest was 15. Here, it’s like 30 kids.”

In a state that earmarks no funding for English learners, the lack of support shows: In 2015-16, only about 15% of those students achieved proficiency on standardized exams. The number dropped dramatically the next year and has improved slightly since then, to just 3% in 2019-20.

With no state funding for language instruction, the Belgrade district relies on less than $10,000 in federal funding — and whatever it can spare from its local budget — to cover the salaries for Davis and two other teachers, one of whom is part time. The trio divide their time among 100 students, and more English learners seem to enroll almost every week, Davis said.

The day after study hall, Davis had to abandon her normal duties — spread across three campuses — to provide translation for a new family from Chile.

“How do I help them when I’m handling 25 other students?” she said. “I just want more people. I don’t care about tech or textbooks. We need more teachers.”

Will Dickerson, meanwhile, envies that Belgrade can afford even those positions.

He’s the interim principal at Hyalite Elementary School in Bozeman, where about 1 in 10 of his 500 students identify as English learners. As he finishes his first year there with volunteer tutors from Montana State University and a part-time teacher’s aide on loan from the district’s central office, Dickerson this spring started sorting through resumes to hire Bozeman’s first teacher for English learners.

“The feds require that we have to meet the educational needs of all students,” he said. “We’re nowhere close to providing what we should.”

To help fill the gaps, nonprofit groups have stepped in to provide language support to students new to Bozeman.

Thrive, a social services group founded in 1986, recently hired its first Spanish-speaking parent liaison to help families navigate the Gallatin Valley schools.

“My job is definitely a new one for Bozeman,” said Isabela Romero, a bilingual immigrant from Peru who joined Thrive in that role last fall. “For lack of a better word, it’s a very white place. We don’t have many bilingual or multilingual speakers in general. In school, there’s maybe one or no Spanish speakers.”

And while Romero can help families figure out how to enroll in school or offer interpretation in parent-teacher conferences, there are limits to the support she can provide. Federal law, for example, mandates that schools arrange for a qualified interpreter in meetings to discuss special education services.

“It’s not a perfect solution,” Romero said of her job. But, “oftentimes, I’m their first and only point of help.”

The most common need that Romero hears about from her families — and one shared by the staff at their children’s schools — is affordable housing.

The average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Bozeman hit more than $2,000 at the close of last year. And even before the pandemic, more than half of renters were considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they paid 30% or more of their income for housing. And nearly a third of renters spent more than half their income on those costs, which include utilities. That makes it particularly hard for a school district with fixed funding levels to offer competitive wages.

A drive down Main Street from the Bozeman school district’s headquarters illustrates the problem: “Now hiring” signs at cafes, fast-food joints and grocery stores advertise jobs paying up to $20 an hour.

“Our biggest challenge is this booming economy,” said Casey Bertram, Bozeman school superintendent. “It’s just unreasonable to find a place to rent and make $17 an hour as a custodian. It just doesn’t add up anymore.”

The competition for new workers has convinced Bertram to consider entering the rental market.

In 2018, in an attempt to ease the housing affordability crisis, Bozeman approved an “inclusionary zoning” policy that required builders to include affordable homes in their developments or pay a fee. But the Montana Legislature last year voted to ban that zoning, prompting Bertram to consider incentives to entice developers to work with the district and build teacher housing.

“A school district getting into the affordable housing business — five years ago, that would be crazy,” Bertram said. “And now we’re meeting with developers to figure out a path forward.”

Potential partners don’t have to drive far to find an example.

About 50 miles southwest of Bozeman, in the Big Sky School District — home to the “Biggest Skiing in America” — multimillion-dollar mansions surround Lone Peak High School and an adjacent pair of one-story triplexes. The triplexes, offered to teachers at deeply discounted rent, were built by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity in partnership with the district.

The skyrocketing cost of housing across Gallatin County has also fueled a rise in homelessness.

Over the past decade, the number of unhoused students attending Montana schools more than tripled, reaching 4,700 as of last year. But Gallatin County — unlike larger urban centers with longer histories of providing emergency housing — has no shelter for youth experiencing homelessness and just one shelter for families.

In Belgrade, Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said at least three of his district’s teachers were homeless this school year.

Isabela Romero meets with parents for the inaugural class of an online English language course that she started for the Thrive nonprofit organization. Romero is the group’s first Spanish-speaking parent liaison. Credit: Neal Morton / The Hechinger Report 

“It’s astonishing,” he said. “We’re encountering more unaccompanied youth, too. They’re just alone. In a country like ours, that should never happen.”

As in other parts of Gallatin, the pace at which families are moving to Belgrade, whether or not they can afford housing, has made it difficult to fill classroom vacancies.

Degenhart, the principal at Story Creek, returned from winter break to greet 23 new kindergartners enrolled at the school. She couldn’t just divide those students among the existing kindergarten teachers: State law caps the early elementary grades at 20 students, which forced Degenhart to make a quick hire.

But Degenhart worried a quick Google search about the region’s high cost of living and low salaries — teachers in Montana earn among the lowest in the country — could dissuade candidates from applying.

“Eight, nine years ago, I had over 100 candidates for one job — 120, easily,” she said. “Now, I get maybe 20 applications from teachers. That’s with the job open for three weeks.”

The scramble to find a new kindergarten teacher provided Degenhart with a preview of another hiring crunch to come: Belgrade will have to find room — and teachers — for all the additional kids who move into the 7,000 homes to be built within the district’s attendance boundaries.

Saunders has already started the search for more land to build another elementary school, and possibly a second middle school.

To build Story Creek, the district paid $475,000 for 20 acres three years ago. Now, a similar lot costs $2.5 million, Saunders said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

In 2015, state lawmakers tried to make it easier to pay for school construction and allowed districts to collect more in local property taxes. Gallatin County superintendents applauded the change, even as they wondered whether taxpayers might start to revolt.

Local property taxes make up close to a third of all funding for public schools in Montana, and Gallatin County voters historically have supported ballot measures that pay for basic district operations and new school buildings. But with a possible constitutional initiative in the works  that could cap taxes on residential property throughout the state, local support for increased taxes might be moot.

“Eight, nine years ago, I had over 100 candidates for one job — 120, easily. Now, I get maybe 20 applications from teachers. That’s with the job open for three weeks.”


A Bozeman attorney and the state auditor have sponsored the measure, and proponents note  taxes for many property owners have risen by more than 30% over the last year. They warn of a bigger increase ahead, blaming a pandemic-fueled boom in real estate values that will lead to even larger tax bills. A state analysis, meanwhile, estimates the measure could cost schools about $84 million in funding over three years.

If passed, the constitutional initiative would be most harmful to residential districts like Belgrade, which lack the business tax base of a place like Bozeman.

“I get the burden for homeowners, especially if they’re on a fixed income,” said Saunders, raising his hands like two sides of a scale. “Just to keep up with the cost of living, the debate gets pretty tough: Do you pay for meds or vote to support schools?”

Supporters of the initiative have until June to collect enough signatures to place it on the ballot.

Regardless of whether the ballot initiative succeeds, some young people have already made up their minds about Bozeman and its future.

At the end of a recent school day, a pair of middle schoolers sat in an open-space classroom that was once the library for the district’s former high school, waiting for text messages announcing the arrival of their parents. They were students in the Bozeman Online Charter School, the state’s first standalone public charter school, an online academy that has so far enrolled more than 100 kids, including some from families that preferred remote learning during Covid lockdowns. But the middle schoolers, in the building for in-person instruction or help on assignments, had their own reasons for wanting to attend a virtual charter.   

“It’s hard to think,” said James, a sixth grader, of the district’s traditional middle school.

“Yeah, way too many people,” agreed Cedar, also a sixth grader. “You go through the hallways and can’t get anywhere.”

Cedar tapped the trackpad on his laptop, developing an app that morphs people’s selfies into faces of potatoes. James, meanwhile, was busy looking at March Madness scores — for a math assignment, he said.

Both begged their parents to keep them in remote school after spending just a few weeks in sixth grade classrooms. Overcrowding, they said, overwhelmed them and triggered anxiety attacks.

They were less worried, though, about how the changes in Bozeman and Gallatin County would affect the area long term. Neither planned to make a life here.

“I don’t like it here,” Cedar said. “Unless you have $1 million to drop on a tiny house, don’t come. If you’re already here, good luck if you stay.”

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The Hechinger Report reporter Neal Morton



Neal Morton is the Western education reporter for The Hechinger Report, covering 10 states in the West: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. 


Voters will not be able to register on Election Day, use only student ID to vote

May 18, 2022

 The Great Seal of the State of Montana in the Supreme Court (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).


The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday voted to stay a lower court order blocking implementation of a series of GOP-backed voting restrictions, ensuring that provisions of two bills passed in 2021 will be in effect for the June 7 primary despite an ongoing legal challenge.

The court’s ruling restores, for now, sections of House Bill 176 and Senate Bill 169 that end Election Day voter registration in Montana and remove student identification cards from the statutory list of primary voter ID — in other words, voters who choose to use student IDs to vote will now need to provide additional documentation to access a ballot. Voter registration now ends noon the day before the election.

In April, a Yellowstone County district court judge preliminarily blocked implementation of both restrictions pending resolution of a constitutional challenge to the bills brought by the Montana Democratic Party and student and indigenous groups, who argued the bills unconstitutionally limit access to the franchise. Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen appealed the injunction order the Supreme Court, arguing that some local elections last year had already been conducted under the new laws, and that reversing the restrictions would cause voter confusion and “upend” the office’s voter education efforts.

The high court agreed — with the exception of Chief Justice Mike McGrath, who noted he would deny Jacobsen’s motion. The purpose of a preliminary injunction, the court’s May 17 order says, is to preserve the status quo and minimize harm to all parties pending resolution of the case. And because certain elections had already taken place by the time the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the bills, preserving the status quo would mean maintaining the restrictions in the two bills.

“In this case the status quo for the electorate—’the last actual, peaceable, noncontested condition which preceded the pending controversy’—leaves SB 169 and HB 176 in effect,” the court order reads. “Plaintiffs have not contradicted Jacobsen’s assertion that 337,000 Montanans voted under the current statutory provisions in 2021, and Plaintiffs did not move to enjoin the enactments prior to the occurrence of those elections.”

Both parties have argued that either removing or restoring the restrictions this close to the election would cause voter confusion, with plaintiff Montana Youth Action stating in one filing that staying the injunction would constitute the third time these laws have changed before the primary.

The Supreme Court responded that “some voter confusion and disruption of election administration appears inevitable,” but that it places the greatest weight on the fact that “elections have actually been conducted under the statutes as enacted by SB 169 and HB 176—elections that a large portion of Montana voters participated in.”

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office confirmed that the student ID and Election Day registration restrictions will be in place by the next election. Jacobsen, in a statement, said she was glad “the Supreme Court recognized the importance of orderly, safe, and secure elections.”

Montana Democratic Party executive director Sheila Hogan said in a statement of her own that the party strongly encourages “Montanans to register and vote early for this primary election.”

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