Garner Cleveland Record

Wake County sees 'alarming' increase in teacher resignations

Underwood Elementary School fifth grade teacher Kelly Nystrom said she doesn’t want to leave teaching but needs to support her family.
Underwood Elementary School fifth grade teacher Kelly Nystrom said she doesn’t want to leave teaching but needs to support her family.

Teacher resignations have increased by an “alarming” 41 percent this school year, Wake County school leaders said Thursday, in a development they said makes it harder to keep high-quality educators in the classrooms working with students.

School leaders said that 612 of Wake’s 9,000 teachers have resigned since the beginning of the school year, compared with 433 during the same time a year ago. School officials said the increase in resignations in North Carolina’s largest school system points to the need to raise pay for teachers and to revisit changes made by state legislators to phase out tenure and to eliminate extra pay for advanced degrees.

“Good teachers are having to make hard decisions to leave our classrooms for a better future somewhere else or in another line of work, in another profession – not in our public schools and not in our state,” said Doug Thilman, Wake’s assistant superintendent for human resources, at a news conference at Underwood Elementary School in Raleigh.

“We know anecdotally that financial security and a more manageable workload has a lot to do with these decisions, and we know that’s our job to sound an alarm to stop the teacher flight, particularly from Wake County, but across our state.”

Wake’s news conference and release of data came as teacher pay has emerged as a major issue likely to figure in state and local elections. North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in average teacher pay.

State House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, questioned whether the situation is as dire as Wake is saying.

Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill said the news conference was not a political maneuver but a means to make clear the need for increased salaries and other inducements to keep quality teachers.

“We are not about politics today,” Merrill said in an interview. “We are here to raise an alarm about losing high-quality teachers.”

The state pays the salaries for most public school teachers. There has been one state salary increase since 2008, years under Democratic and Republican control of state government.

Reasons for leaving

Wake asked teachers why they’re resigning midyear. According to the data, more than 200 teachers said they’re leaving because of employment outside of teaching, dissatisfaction with teaching, a career change, to work in another state/government agency, to teach in another state or other reasons. Last year, 117 teachers gave those same reasons for resigning.

Thilman said it’s telling that there was a drop in the number of teachers who said they’re resigning to teach in another North Carolina school system. At the same time, there was an increase in the number of teachers who said they’re leaving to teach in other states.

Stam pointed to the rise in the number of teachers who have retired as being a big reason for the increase in resignations.

A total of 142 teachers have taken early retirement so far this school year, compared with 55 at the same point last school year.

Stam also noted that there was a slight uptick in the number of resignations this year for child-care reasons and that only one teacher was listed in Wake’s report as being dismissed midyear since 2009.

“There is nothing particularly alarming in this report, other than WCPSS cherry-picking numbers to fit its narrative,” Stam wrote in an email message.

Underwood will have lost five teachers, or 25 percent of its classroom teachers, by the end of the school year, according to Principal Jackie Jordan. She noted that two of her teachers have had their houses foreclosed on this year and that one teacher is receiving food stamps.

“If we’re losing teachers at this rate, what’s happening in other schools around the state that may not have as much support from the community, that may not have a beautiful facility?” Jordan said.

Kelly Nystrom, a fifth-grade teacher at Underwood, said she’s leaving the profession because the pay isn’t enough to support her family. Nystrom said she’s getting $20,000 less a year than she made when she was a teacher in California 11 years ago.

“Being a teacher is who I am,” Nystrom said at the news conference. “And to have to make the decision to leave that for financial reasons was devastating.”

Tracy and Britt Morton, both physical-education teachers at Apex High School, told their principal Thursday that they’re leaving at the end of the school year to teach in Georgia.

Britt Morton, a 1991 Apex High graduate, said he wanted to retire from that school. But Morton said they couldn’t afford to stay in North Carolina, where the couple juggle extra jobs such as landscaping, managing a pool and selling athletic equipment.

“Now we’re having to leave just to make ends meet,” Britt Morton said. “It comes down to us making a life change because we’re working three to four jobs.”

Statewide, teacher turnover in the 2012-13 school year reached the second highest rate in a decade. Early retirements are up. And in the UNC system – the largest producer of new teachers – enrollment in teacher training programs declined by nearly 7 percent in 2013.

Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at N.C. State University’s College of Education, said the school expects an 18 percent drop this year in the number of students entering the teaching program. He said that at the same time they’re getting fewer applicants, more of those who are completing the program are choosing teaching jobs in other states.

Raises for new teachers

Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislative leaders propose increasing the base teacher salary to $33,000 this year and $35,000 in 2015. The current starting salary is $30,800. The plan will cost roughly $200 million to raise pay for beginning teachers.

But McCrory and GOP legislative leaders say fiscal challenges could prevent the state from giving raises to veteran teachers. Critics blame the lack of funding on the new state tax plan adopted last year, a charge that McCrory denies.

Locally, Wake school leaders are gearing up to ask the Wake County Board of Commissioners for a $39.3 million increase in local funding. Most of that increase would go toward a 3.5 percent pay raise for all school district employees.

The goal of Merrill, the Wake superintendent, is to raise the district’s average teacher salary of $45,512 to the national average of $56,383 by 2020.

“We work very hard,” Nystrom said. “We are very well-educated. We deserve to be financially compensated for our time.”