blessing and a curse

Tales from inside Colorado’s teacher shortage: housing for horses and recruiters without interviews

A recruiter from Aurora Public Schools works a booth at a job fair at the University of Northern Colorado.

The job fair was going well for Stephanie Polutchko and the phrase on her white name tag explained why: “high school science.”

Like other prospective Colorado teachers in high-demand areas, she was flush with options as she walked the long rows of school district booths advertising open interview slots and, in some cases, signing bonuses.

By lunchtime, one recruiter from a tiny school district on the sparsely populated Eastern Plains had dangled a tantalizing offer before Polutchko. She could run the entire secondary science department, have classes as small as eight students, and coach the high school rodeo team. Plus, they’d give her a place to board her horse.

Polutchko hadn’t planned to move outside the Front Range urban corridor, but now she was tempted.

“I was really in love with them,” she said later.

A sign at a job fair booth advertising signing bonuses for certain positions

Polutchko’s experience illustrates the upside of Colorado’s teacher shortage for job-seekers in disciplines such as math, science, special education, or foreign language, as well as those willing to work in rural schools. But the workforce crisis leaves district officials anxious about unfilled vacancies, under-staffed schools, and sometimes, second-rate hires.

For Thomas Myers, director of secondary student support services for the suburban Adams 12 school district, an empty blue folding chair encapsulated all those worries at the job fair. It was meant for special education job candidates who wanted to interview with him.

But even though hundreds of candidates visited the fair inside a University of Northern Colorado sports arena that April day, almost no one sat in the chair. His interview sign-up sheet, which had room for about 20 candidates, had a single name on it.

“Four years ago, five years ago, I was full for two days,” Myers said. “It’s just been a steady decline.”

Adams 12 needs to fill 30 to 40 special education jobs for next school year. It’s a tall order considering the positions require special credentials, and come with copious paperwork and higher litigation risks, Myers said.

As colleagues beside him at the job fair table interviewed general education job-seekers, Myers waited. For the right special education candidate, he said, he’d sweeten the deal by offering a signing bonus of $1,200 to $1,500. It wasn’t much compared to the $10,000 bonuses he’d seen offered by some out-of-state districts, but his bigger problem was the empty chair.

A state strategic plan released in December contains lots of ideas that could help Myers and district leaders like him recruit and retain educators in shortage areas — everything from loan forgiveness programs to extra compensation for teachers in hard-to-staff schools. The state budget includes $10 million to address teacher shortages, particularly in rural areas, but legislators have shied away from more expensive fixes.

For the moment, school districts will have to muddle along, or as Deer Trail Superintendent Kevin Schott put it, “be a little creative.”

Schott, who manned the job fair booth for his 200-student district east of Denver, planned to offer a $3,000 signing bonus to fill a science opening — one of three available jobs.

The district’s starting salary for new teachers with a bachelor’s degree is just under $34,000.

Like leaders in other rural districts, Schott sometimes offers discounted housing to prospective employees. Currently, Deer Trail has five apartment units, but soon there will be more.

“We have a basement we’re going to finish off this summer,” he said.

For young job-seekers like Chelsea Linton, who will graduate from the University of Northern Colorado next month, the field remains competitive. That’s because she’s getting her degree in elementary education — not an acute shortage area in most districts.

“Do you see how many of us are here today?” she said, glancing around at all the candidates milling past more than 150 school district booths. “It’s kind of crazy.”

Linton, who hopes to stay on in the Morgan County district in northern Colorado where she’s finishing her student teaching, said she’d earn $32,000 if she lands a spot there. Despite about $10,000 in students loans to pay off, she said salary isn’t the deciding factor.

“To me, you don’t go into teaching for the money,” she said.

While other candidates at the job fair expressed similar sentiments, low compensation is a nagging issue for both Colorado teachers and the districts that compete to employ them. A recent study ranked Colorado last among states for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Even sought-after candidates like Polutchko, who was heavily recruited by the rural district with the rodeo team, can’t count on making much money. Though she will earn her master’s degree in evolutionary biology this spring, her salary in the rural district would likely be half of what she’d make in the affluent Boulder Valley district. That’s where she student teaches now and has lived for the last six years.

Still, Boulder is pricey and the uniqueness of a small, rural community is enticing, she said.

The rural district’s recruiter told Polutchko that with hunting common there, it’s likely a student would bring in an elk heart for dissection. Or maybe a local farmer would send in a stillborn calf for the class to examine. The possibilities thrilled her.

“I was like, ‘Yes!’” Polutchko said.

Future of Teaching

Average salary: $50,481. Doctorates: 21. First year educators: 241. We have the numbers on Indianapolis Public Schools teachers.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Teachers in the state’s largest district are facing significant upheaval, as Indianapolis Public Schools consolidates high schools and grapples with a steep budget deficit.

Teachers and other staff are one of the district’s biggest expenses. This year, the district expects to spend nearly $200 million on salaries and benefits for staff, the vast majority of its general fund operating budget. In the months ahead, it is uncertain what steps district leaders will take to balance the budget, but it is likely teachers will be heavily impacted.

Already, we’re seeing some of the effects of high school closings and budget woes on educators. At the beginning of this month, nearly 150 educators who were displaced by high school closings are still looking for jobs, and the district is offering teachers $20,000 to retire. The district is also planning to ask taxpayers for extra money that leaders say is essential to fund regular teacher raises.

This intense focus on educators got us wondering about the district’s teaching ranks — what are their backgrounds, how high are their salaries, how much experience do they have? Here are some of the essential details we learned from state data about Indianapolis’ teachers.

From veterans to newbies

  • 241 Indianapolis Public Schools educators are in their first year, about 10 percent of the 2,497 certified employees in the district this year.
  • The school with the most first-year educators is John Marshall Middle School, where 20 educators were reported to be in their first year.
  • 34 educators have 40 or more years of experience, and 674 have 20 or more years experience.

Diploma details

  • 21 educators in Indianapolis Public Schools have doctorates, including the district’s chief, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. At the school level, Arsenal Technical High School and Northwest High School each have three educators with doctorates.
  • 789 have master’s degrees, and 1,649 have bachelor’s degrees as their highest level of education.

Money matters

  • Last year, the average annual teacher salary in the district was $50,481 — down about $1,900 from the average in 2013-2014.
  • The district spent a total of $1,926,531 on teacher salary increases last year.
  • Still, IPS has been raising teacher pay. The minimum salary for educators has gone up by more than $4,000 to $40,000 since 2013-2014.

Sources: Data from the first period 2017-18 Indiana Department of Education certified employee report and the 2016-17 and 2013-2014 collective bargaining reports from the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board.

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid what they deserve if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise pay for the first time in years.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

In the past, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of newly hired teachers who could help alleviate the shortage. New teachers could only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts.

Vitti has said low pay in the Detroit district is the main reason it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep the ones they have. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The subcommittee also recommended giving a one-time bonus for teachers at the top of the salary scale to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes would make a huge impact. It’s a major change for district teachers who have been stuck in a pay freeze and could draw new teachers into the district now that their experience may be recognized, allowing them to start at a higher salary.  

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” she said. Specifically, the federation wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.