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

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.

Teacher Pay

‘Our teachers have waited long enough’: Educators say Indiana needs to act now on teacher pay

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.

Educators and advocates are pushing state leaders to take action this year to raise teacher compensation — not to wait for additional research, as Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed last week.

“Our teachers have waited long enough,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t take a two-year study to discover what we already know: teachers need to be valued, respected, and paid as professionals.”

Holcomb’s proposal last week to study raises in the upcoming budget-writing session and make bigger steps in 2021 didn’t sit well with some, since lawmakers and advocates spent the fall talking up the need to make teacher salaries competitive with other states. But given the state’s tight budget situation, Holcomb suggested studying the impact of raises for at least a year, as well as looking at how much money would be needed and how districts would be expected to get the money to teachers.

Read: Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

The proposal drew quick criticism. Education leaders and advocacy groups took to Twitter to express their hopes that Holcomb and lawmakers would find ways to address teacher salaries this year as well as into the future.

“IN must respond now,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick tweeted Friday morning, remarking that too many teachers across the state are leaving the profession because pay is too low. “Kids deserve & depend upon excellent teachers.”

“We can’t wait to act because Hoosier children are counting on all us to come together to ensure our schools can attract and retain the best teachers,” Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said in a blog post titled “The time to act on teacher pay is now.

ISTA’s 2019 legislative agenda, released Monday, will continue pushing for lawmakers and state leaders to find creative solutions to raise teacher pay and make Indiana competitive with other states.

And ISTA says they might have voters on their side. A recent ISTA poll of more than 600 Hoosiers, conducted by Emma White Research, shows that funding for education is a priority across the state, with more than 86 percent of those sampled supporting sending more money to public schools. About 72 percent of people polled believe educators are underpaid.

But it’s unclear if there would be enough money in the budget to spend on across-the-board raises after other funding obligations are met, such as funding needed by the Department of Child Services to deal with effects of the state’s opioid crisis. Senate Democrats have called for $81 million a year to ensure 5 percent raises for teachers and counselors over the next two years. Republicans have strong majorities in both chambers.

Neither ISTA, lawmakers, Holcomb nor other education groups have released specific plans for either how much they’d like to see set aside for teachers or strategies for how a pay increase could feasibly be carried out. However, the effort has brought together some unlikely allies — the union, a vocal advocate for traditional public schools, rarely aligns its education policy with groups like Stand and Teach Plus Indiana that have favored increased school-choice options, such as charter schools.

With limited dollars to go around, the focus will have to also be on how to make existing education dollars go farther, Meredith said. She, along with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last month, pointed to the need to curtail spending on administration, which, they argue, could free up money for other expenses such as teacher compensation.

Some have also pointed to the state’s recent budget surplus and reserves as evidence that Indiana could spend more on education if there was political will to do so.

“The surplus has come on the backs of educators and their students,” Meredith said. “Elected leaders must do more. They must do more to declare teacher pay a priority in this session, and they must take action.”

ISTA is also hoping lawmakers will act to:

  • Restore collective bargaining rights so educators can negotiate work hours and class size, as well as salaries and benefits.
  • Remove teacher evaluation results from decisions about salary until the state’s new ILEARN test has been in place for a few years.
  • Invest in school counselors, psychologists, and social workers
  • Strengthen regulations for charter and virtual charter schools, including putting a moratorium on new virtual schools until those safeguards can be enacted.
  • Study districts that have focused on how to best teach students who have experienced trauma.

Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.

Correction: Dec. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect that Stand for Children Indiana doesn’t take a position in regards to private school vouchers.