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Colorado Springs school districts not alone with teacher retention problems

June 8, 2015 Updated: June 8, 2015 at 5:57 am
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photo - Standardized test taking
Standardized test taking 

A smaller stable of candidates, stymied funding and stiff competition have made attracting and keeping good teachers increasingly difficult for local public school districts.

But, "It's not just Colorado. Places are struggling with teacher recruitment nationwide," said Paul McCarty, superintendent at Hanover School District 28, south of Fountain.

The market seems to be tightening in general, said Matt Meister, spokesman for Falcon School District 49, east of Colorado Springs.

"The overall candidate pool is contracting," he said.

Reasons vary. Some believe that bickering over education policy, controversy about standardized testing and growing demands on teachers are discouraging young adults from entering the field. But it's likely due to a combination of factors, said Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 near The Broadmoor.

"The pool of candidates for every position is typically smaller than it was 10 years ago," Cooper said. "It would not have been unusual for us to have up to 30 or 40 applicants per elementary classroom position. Now, we might have two-thirds of that."

Some jobs are harder to fill than others. Candidates for elementary school teachers "remain strong," Meister said. But it's been challenging for his district to find qualified competent teachers in math, science and special education.

High school science and math teachers are tougher to hire than junior high social studies teachers, Cooper said. And, "If we're trying to hire a speech language pathologist, they're almost impossible to find."

For the most part, it's not that there aren't enough teachers, officials say. It's that to lure the high-quality ones, schools have to let the bells and whistles rip.

There are plenty of teachers on the market who have not been renewed or who have been terminated from another district, or who are in training and need to learn on the job, McCarty said.

"So a lot of times you can fill a position, but it may not be the effective teacher you want," he said.

For this last school year, Hanover D-28 was unable to find "what we considered a highly qualified math teacher for middle school - there's a real shortage there," McCarty said.

Science teachers with math backgrounds filled the job, and the district interviewed replacement candidates last week, one of four openings in D-28.

"You've got to be real persistent and get on it early - as soon as school is over or even before it ends - to interview people," McCarty said.

Following the money

Wages and benefits are among the elements teachers looking for work or changing jobs consider, and rural districts often can't compete.

"It's hard when the bigger districts have higher starting salaries," said Richard Stettler, chief financial officer for Ellicott School District 22, an Eastern Plains district that had close to 1,100 students last school year.

Ellicott was able increase salaries for the fall, boosting the entry-level teacher salary to $31,600, for certified teachers with a bachelor's degree. And its 78 full-time teachers got 5 to 10 percent increases across the board, Stettler said, to become more attractive to candidates and keep the teachers it has.

Hanover, however, was not able to increase its minimum base salary of $30,000, the same as it has been since 2013.

"If we can raise our base salary, we'd have a reasonable standing against the larger districts," McCarty said. "Everybody was hanging on by a thread during the recession, and we gave back steps (pay increases) to those who hung with us during the freeze."

Hanover, still feeling the effects of the recession, was one of three El Paso County school districts flagged last week as having two or more unhealthy financial markers in the Fiscal Health Analysis of the state's 178 school districts.

McCarty just lost a teacher he had hired four years ago as a newbie. She's moving to Cheyenne Mountain D-12 in the fall, where she can make thousands of dollars more per year.

"We had a great teacher. We developed her, and now we lose her. It's like we're the minor leagues, and that's very common for rural districts," said McCarty, the regional representative on the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance board.

Across the state, rural districts are struggling with teacher recruitment because "a lot of people want to live where they have a Wal-Mart or Target nearby," McCarty said.

Other local districts have earmarked a good portion of state funding for next school year toward improving compensation. Falcon D-49 will increase salaries for returning staff by 3.2 percent. The starting wage for teachers will be $33,500. The starting wage in Cheyenne Mountain D-12 for the fall is $34,880. In Academy School District 20, it will be $36,862 It's still under $30,000 for some smaller districts, though.

Colorado Springs School District 11, which used to have one of the highest base salaries in the region, but fell behind with state budget cuts and decreasing enrollment, has upped its base pay from $32,206 to $34,750 starting in the fall.

"We're hoping it will make a big difference and make us more attractive, all around," said Danniella Ewen, executive director of human resources.

Increasing the base salary in D-11 and other districts that use the steps and lanes system of compensation also increases the salaries of teachers who are moving forward on the scale.

Because job candidates want a good benefits plan, Ewen said D-11 also works on offering a solid package with health, dental and vision insurance coverage, as well as retirement contributions.

Recruiting, other factors

Money's not everything, though. Stettler said Ellicott D-22 opened a new middle school building last school year, which he believes has helped draw both students and teachers.

Plus, "A rural environment is a much more pleasing environment in which to work," he said. "You have more direct contact with everybody, and you can make quite an effect on students when you teach out here."

McCarty said Hanover D-28 also has "a good environment," with Smartboards in academic classrooms, small classes of fewer than 20 students, and "a lot of personal attention to our kids that you won't find in other places."

Districts also are trying new recruitment strategies. D-11 will hire 200 to 400 teachers for the coming school year, Ewen said, and is conducting interviews through July.

To recruit candidates, D-11 has increased its use of LinkedIn, a business-oriented social media site, and other online tools, Ewen said.

Attending job fairs at colleges across the state and keeping a "very visible presence" also helps draw candidates, she said.

Falcon D-49 has stepped up recruitment efforts outside the Pikes Peak region and the state, Meister said.

"Teachers are looking for a school that pays well, has a mission that aligns with their personal philosophy and maintains a healthy culture with an involved community of parents," he said.

High turnover rates

Teacher turnover increased in almost all of the 17 local school districts during the 2014-2015 school year, with the exception of a few, according to recent analysis by Chalkbeat Colorado, a nonprofit education news organization based in Denver.

The three highest, Miami-Yoder School District JT-60, another small rural district, Harrison School District 2, the region's fourth-largest district, and Hanover D-28, had 30 percent or more turnover among teachers last school year.

At 32 percent, Harrison had the highest turnover rate of the state's 20 largest school districts.

Harrison switched in 2010 to a compensation system that bases teachers' salaries on evaluations and academic progress of students instead of time on the job.

D-2 spokeswoman Christine Lyle told Chalkbeat that district officials are considering adding longevity pay for teachers who have worked for the district at least five years. Harrison held a teacher job fair in the spring.

D-2's proximity to Fort Carson causes higher teacher mobility, as well as having a higher percentage of low-income families, according to officials.

The Chalkbeat analysis found that districts with higher poverty rates are more likely to experience higher teacher turnover.

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