Wake County schools talk about challenges to teacher recruitment efforts

Posted by T. Keung Hui on February 14, 2014 

Let’s switch from talking about snow days to the challenges the Wake County school system is facing at the start of a recruitment season where it needs to hire more than 1,000 new teachers for the 2014-15 school year.

As noted in Sunday’s article, Wake school leaders said at Saturday’s school board retreat that low pay and the state’s phasing out of tenure and extra pay for master’s degrees could hurt the district’s recruitment. You’ve also got issues such as recruiting a diverse workforce and providing enough support for beginning years.

The Monday announcement by Gov. Pat McCroy and state legislative leaders to raise pay for beginning teachers addresses some of the concerns raised by Wake.

Let’s start by clicking here for a handout that was proved to Wake school board members at the retreat.

Wake typically hires so many new teachers annually because of turnover and enrollment growth.

Doug Thilman, Wake’s assistant superintendent for human resources, opened by reviewing teacher turnover data. He cautioned that the state data can be misleading because it counts as turnover anything that causes a teacher to leave the classroom, including becoming an administrator and a coordinating teacher.

Wake’s turnover was lowest among a group of eight school districts that includes some of the largest systems in the state.

Preliminary numbers indicate that turnover is up in Wake. In 2012-13, 1,170 Wake teachers left teaching positions. From March to January, 1,182 teachers had turned over.

What soon draw a lot of attention was the preliminary figures showing that 60 teachers reported leaving to to teach in another state, compared to 31 in 2012-13.

School board vice chairman Tom Benton called the increase “pretty significant.”

Board members also noted how 26 teachers said they were leaving to teach in a private school, up from 16 the prior year and 15 said they were leaving to teach in a North Carolina charter school, compared to seven previously.

“They’re small in number, but that percentage could show more of an impact as we finish out this school year,” Thilman said.

Attention next turned to a report showing the reasons for 1,424 teacher resignations in Wake since July. The largest category was 467 for teachers who were not rehired after their interim contract ended. But Thilman said that figure could be misleading as it includes teachers who were later rehired after being initially let go.

Thilman explained that with decreasing budgets in the last few years, principals have been waiting until late July or early August to fill some positions, meaning some people let go in early July have had to wait to come back.

Superintendent Jim Merrill said he had to address a “fallacy” used by some people to point to the low number of dismissals to argue that’s why tenure/career status needed to be ended. While Wake’s figures list only 23 dismissals, Merrill said you also need to look at other categories such as the one showing 132 teachers resigned for other reasons.

“A lot of people don’t wait to be dismissed,” Merrill said. “HR systems in all of North Carolina work with people. Yet folks look at this report and say well we’re not firing enough teachers.

Therefore it must be too hard to get rid of teachers so we need to get rid of career status. That’s the foolishness of using just that one line of data.”

The topic next turned to recruitment, specifically the demographic data of Wake’s teacher workforce. Male and minority teachers represent much lower percentages compared to the figures for the student population.

For instance, males represent 18.2 percent of teachers, 39.9 percent of assistant principals and 42.9 percent of principals.

Whites account for 83.5 percent of teachers, 63.4 percent of assistant principals and 76.5 percent of principals. Whites account for 49.1 percent of the students.

“We still have a lot of work to do to bring balance to our workforce so it will more mirror our student population,” Thilman said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. It’s one of our long-term goals and will continue to be. But a diverse force we’re struggling with as a system right now.”

Thilman said they‘ve begun their heavy spring recruitment with two recruiters traveling the southeast and northeast. Their visits will include historically black colleges and universities.

“We’re doing everything we can to bring the quality we need here,” Thilman said.

Wake has ramped up its efforts to keep good student teachers who are now working in the district. There are 330 student teachers working in Wake this spring with 99 schools having at least one.

Thilman said they’ve been encouraging principals to let them know if they have good student teachers they should target for hiring after graduation.

With special education positions still being hard to fill, Thilman said they’ve been “heavily in their business” to get them to stay if they know they’ve got a good student teacher in that field.

Wake has created this year a “Student Teacher University,” targeted at student teachers in harder to fill areas of math, science and special education. As of Saturday, Thilman said 40 of the 59 they had invited had agreed to participate.

Another new program started by Wake is Future STARS, whose goal “is to recruit, train and retain a diverse cohort of education students to become highly effective teachers” in the district.

To try to lock in good talent, Wake is restoring its early contract program, now called “early hire agreement,” or EHA. Thilman said the inability to use early contracts last year hurt their ability to recruit some teachers.

Thilman said that the EHA program is targeted at hard to fill positions such as special education, math and/or science, health occupations, male elementary school teachers, minority elementary school teachers and world languages. Some schools are getting priority for the EHA slots, including low-performing schools, recently converted magnet schools and new schools opening this year.

In the midst of the discussion, Benton focused attention back on the 60 teachers who said they had resigned to teach in another state. He pointed to how “the vast majority” of teachers wait until the end of the school year to leave.

“That 60 is probably not going to just double to 120,” Benton said. “It may quadruple.”

Benton, a retired principal, said principals are telling him that while they haven’t seen a big uptick in resignations yet they’re having a harder time finding as many applicants to fill openings.

Thilman said they’ve been hearing the same things from principals about the pool not being as large.

“We’re just on the verge of what I think is going to be a challenge for staffing next year,” Thilman said.

The discussion next turned to retention efforts, specifically Wake’s Beginning Teacher Support Program (BTSP). It used to be state funded but it’s now run in Wake on local dollars.

Thilman said that Wake historically has had one of the strongest BTSP programs because of the veteran teachers at each school who agree to mentor beginning teachers. He called the program Wake’s biggest retention piece for beginning teachers.

Thilman said these mentors, who get some extra pay, do things such as tell the beginning teachers that it’s normal to feel tired and miserable during January and February, which are the toughest parts of the year

Since the work loads vary based on the number of mentors at each school, Thilman said they’ve been encouraging veteran teachers to get training to become mentors.

The talk next turned to salary and benefits.

Wake supplements the $30,800 currently paid by the state to teachers with between zero and five years on their license, resulting in a minimum salary of $35,189. The maximum salary in Wake, which Thilman said is typically for a 30-year teacher with a master’s degree and national board certification, is $79,680. Since the 2009-10 fiscal year, it’s only gone up once.

The focus then turned to the Wake teachers with less than 10 years experience, a group that makes up for 49 percent of the workforce. The maximum salary for a teacher with less than 10 years experience and only a bachelor’s degree is $41,081.

Thilman called that $41,081 figure a “challenge” for those teachers.

School board member Jim Martin said that $41,000 is the starting salary for many other positions for people right after college graduation.

“Ten years in, you’re still making the starting salary,” Martin said, comparing the teachers and non-teachers.

Thilman said they heard a lot of outcry over the past summer from teachers with up to five years experience about not making more than a beginning teacher.

McCrory’s new plan boosts the pay of beginning teachers but doesn‘t have anything for veteran teachers. He’s said they’ll be added if there’s enough additional state revenue.

Thilman noted how 200 teachers are in the pipeline to complete their national board certification this year, which would give them a 12 percent pay raise from the state. But it was noted that the state no longer pays the $2,500 cost for the certification process.

“If you’re a 5-year teacher and you’re making $35,000, to lay out that kind of money is significant,” Thilman said.

David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, said you should also keep in mind the challenges facing teachers who are paying $8,000 a year for family health insurance coverage. Wake picks up most of the costs for teachers who only have individual coverage.

Benton noted how there are many couples in Wake who are both teachers.

“What really struck me this past year and we’ve had discussion about people making $80,000 in state government, a teaching couple together don’t reach $80,000,” Benton said.

Martin chimed in that he was a free-and-reduced lunch student growing up because his father was a teacher.

Attention then turned to the average salary chart in Wake, where the $46,245.08 is less than the $46,488.40 from 2010. School board member Susan Evans said that drop is significant when you consider how much health care costs have gone up since then.

They then looked at the benefits and salary of a teacher with only a bachelor’s degree with zero to five years on their license and one who has six to 10 years on the license.

The total compensation for the beginning teacher is $54,374.01. It’s $64,329.16 for the teacher with six to 10 years on the license.

School board member Bill Fletcher said it shows that the gross pay for a teacher in the first six years is less than $3,000 a month before taxes.

Neter said they should also keep in mind that other employees face challenges. As an example, he cited how a beginning bus driver starts at $11.89 per hour. It rises to $15 per hour with a full-time salary of $30,000 after 10 to 15 years.

Benton related how shortly before he retired in 2005 as principal of Durant Road Middle School that his receptionist left after seeing how her son was getting more money while working less hours and with benefits at Starbucks.

The discussion then shifted to “climate assumptions.”

“From an HR perspective, we’ve got happy people working for Wake County schools,” Thilman said. “They love their jobs, whatever it is. They do enjoy the work. A lot of the people understand that if they enter education they know it’s not a get rich field.”

But Thilman added that pay is one aspect of an employees’ life that needs to be addressed.

Thilman gave an overview of the “ Listening to Those on the Front Lines,” a survey of 600 North Carolina educators done last summer to get their feedback on things such as the state legislative changes. As you’ll see from the handout, they thought that the changes would negatively impact teaching and learning in the state.

Thilman added though that he didn’t think the changes have negatively impacted teaching and learning yet in Wake County.

“They’ll wear red and they’ll protest and they’ll do other things,” Thilman said of Wake’s teachers. “But they’ll also go in and do their jobs.”

School board member Kevin Hill said the survey, which originally focused more on teachers on the coast, is still active. He said that he’s talked with the Wake County PTA Council about setting up a link for Wake teachers to participate.

“We’re going to see more indications that might not be as uplifting,” Hill said.

Martin said he feels that teaching and learning has been negatively impacted by the Read To Achieve legislation.

“It hasn’t affected the commitment of our teachers to do their absolute best, but it’s kind of hard to run a marathon with a ball chained to your leg,” Martin said.

Neter then weighed in with his concerns about the impact that the state changes could have on Wake’s recruitment efforts.

“I’m very concerned about our recruiting this spring,” Neter said.

As an example, Neter pointed to not extending extra state pay, about 10 percent a year, to new teachers who have master’s degrees. He said they get about 200 new teachers a year from New York, which requires educators to have a master’s degree to get certification.

“When they see they’re no longer going to get that supplement, are they still going to come to North Carolina or Wake County?” Neter said. “That’s a big question mark.”

With the phasing out of tenure and the new four-year contracts that have to be offered to 25 percent of teachers, Neter said teachers are less likely to leave other N.C. districts to come to Wake because they can’t take the new contract with them.

Neter added that his sister-in-law works in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Neter said that people in Los Angeles have heard about the changes in North Carolina to cite how it’s gotten national exposure,

Benton related how after retiring as a principal in 2005 he took a contract as a recruiter for the district.

“There were lines at our table because they had heard of all the progressive things going on in North Carolina, and particularly Wake County in Raleigh,” Benton said. “The reputation of Wake County schools was unbelievably strong at that point in time. And so we had people lined up wanting information about coming to our system.

Pay was always an issue even then, but we had enough other things and we were pretty close to the national average. We would take copies of The News & Observer to show them housing and apartment rentals and that type of thing. They could see whether they could make it work. I’m just wondering what our sales pitch is when we go on recruiting fairs now.”

“Our sales pitch is still Wake County schools,” Thilman replied. “The reputation is still strong. I do worry, like what Mr. Neter said, how the state is looked at when we’re recruiting outside of North Carolina.”

Thilman added that a year from now they’ll be better able to tell what the impact of the state changes has been on recruiting. But for now he said their job is just getting people to Wake.

Benton hit on a theme that’s he brought up before about how they need the Wake County Board of Commissioners to help pick up the funding slack from the state.

“At some point Wake County is going to have to decide – not Wake County schools but Wake County – if we’re going to pick up the slack that the state has caused through local funding, as we’re already doing, so that Wake County remains a desirable place for teachers to relocate to and stay,” Benton said.

School board member Keith Sutton said he’s pleasantly surprised by the number of women working in administrative positions.

But Sutton, who has been an advocate of increasing the number of minority educators in the district, said he’s concerned by the dropoff in the percentage of African American and Hispanic principals compared to assistant principals. African Americans account for 31.7 percent of assistant principals but only 20 percent of principals. Hispanics account for 3.6 percent of assistant principals but only 0.6 percent of principals.

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