The staffing shortage in Belgrade schools is so acute that the district has decided to give bonuses to employees who recruit successful candidates between now and the end of the year.

The school board voted Monday to compensate current employees up to $500 for recruiting special education paraprofessionals, custodians, food service employees and substitute teachers. Bonuses of $100 will be paid to recommending employees upon a recruit’s hiring, and an additional $400 after a classified employee completes a six-month probationary period or upon a substitute teacher working 60 days or more.

The district’s Human Resources Director John Blackman said Tuesday that administrators have been considering instituting a recruitment bonus policy for quite a while. Then Bozeman schools recently implemented a similar policy, prompting Blackman to present the idea to the school board.

As the Belgrade News reported last month, the school board has readily approved other measures in attempt to alleviate the staff shortage. At its regular meeting in August, the board approved increasing compensation for substitute bus drivers from a flat fee of $37 to $47 and also voted to maintain the increased rates of substitute pay it approved last December for certified and classified staff.

Blackman said that in the past month he was hopeful such strategies were making a difference, but the district hasn’t been able to get ahead.

“We hired three custodians, but two others left to take higher-paying jobs,” he told the Belgrade News this week. “As soon as we hire them, somebody else leaves. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’s like gas wars, only with employees,” he continued. “(Other businesses) are jacking their rates up, but how far can you go? Being a public entity, we don’t have that luxury.”

Current staff, parents and students all have been pitching in to help where needed, Blackman said. Teachers are stepping up to do extra duties normally handled by paras; parents, students and district personnel have volunteered to assume some of the lighter custodial duties.

“I was sweeping stairwells the other day over at the middle school,” Blackman said.

He noted that parents at Saddle Peak Elementary have been very instrumental in helping to keep that building clean and that students are volunteering and applying for paid, after-school custodial or concessions positions.

“Every little bit helps,” Blackman said.

Blackman is hopeful that the employee incentive program will bring more qualified applicants to the district. By Tuesday, the district had hired a paraprofessional and custodian who were referred by current employees who are now eligible for recruitment bonuses.

In other business Monday, the board approved changes to the reopening plan approved earlier in the year in order to ensure that the plan adheres to current laws.

Among the changes approved was language specifying that the school board will make the determination about face covering requirements under a Phase 3 reopening (which currently exists), rather than to have that decision be voluntary. It also removed language stating that the district is required to follow contact-tracing protocols and clarified that the district cannot require an COVID-infected student or staff member to be quarantined outside of school, though it does have the authority to keep sick people out of the schools until they are well.

Though the district is not offering a blended in-person/remote learning option this year, it now will offer a distance-learning accommodation to students whose exposure to COVID-19 puts them or members or their household at high risk.

Curriculum Director Mark Halgren said Tuesday that the district has selected the learning platform Edmentum to provide instruction for such students. The program offers K-12 curriculum with the remote teachers assigned to individual students.

The annual cost of the program is $3,000 per student in grades K-5 and $6,000 per student in grades 6-12. The district will pay for the program with ESSER funds provided to the district for the purpose of covering COVID-related expenses.

Halgren said he expects fewer than 10 Belgrade students to enroll in the Edmentum program.