Teacher shortages loom even after layoffs rescinded

  • Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop is dealing with dozens of job openings as the school year commences on Aug. 21. Despite rescinding layoff notices after school funding was settled by the Legislature, not everyone who received one is coming back for the 2017-18 school year. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)

While the Alaska Legislature tarried on budget talks for fiscal year 2018, nearly 700 teachers statewide were handed pink slips as required by state law in the weeks before the school year ended.

The Legislature eventually settled budget questions six weeks after school was let out by reversing a proposed 5 percent cut, or $69 million. The statewide education budget was restored to the same amount as the prior year, or $1.3 billion to be shared among all 53 school districts. That allowed the layoff notices to be rescinded.

A couple months later, schools are struggling with an opposite problem: a teacher shortage with the school year set to begin Aug. 21. Where did all the teachers go that were laid off?

Many were rehired. But others were lost to moves out of state, lured by school districts in the Lower 48 that pay more and don’t put teachers through the drama of wondering each year if they’ll have a job in the fall, said Tim Parker, president of National Education Association-Alaska.

“It’s not unusual to have teacher vacancies after a school year,” said Parker. “We’ve had a teacher shortage going for a while and the problem has gotten a little bigger. The development that’s surprising here is that on Aug. 10, there were 45 unfilled positions in Anchorage alone. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”

Parker was referring to the Anchorage School District teacher shortage. In May, about 220 ASD teachers were handed pink slips in addition to the 100 positions lost in an early layoff due to 2017 budget cuts.

Within two weeks, ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop said she was able to hire a majority back, plus new teachers. Still, there were nine elementary school vacancies across the district, a need for science, math, music physical ed and Alaska Native teachers.

In Juneau and on the Kenai Peninsula, the same story plagues districts just as first day of school draws near.

“What is unusual,” said Juneau School District Director of Student Services Bridget Weiss, “is having vacancies this close to school starting.”

Days before school was set to start in Juneau, Weiss said the amount of vacancies in the school district is about the same as past years, but usually, the jobs are filled by this point. Schools throughout the country, and especially in Alaska, are dealing with a lack of teachers.

As of Aug. 15 there were 541 job listings for Alaska Teacher Placement, a site that tracks education jobs in Alaska. The Juneau School District listed a need for two teachers, along with 38 other openings related to substitute teachers, support staff and student support services.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is advertising 99 jobs. That district is need of eight substitute teachers, five athletics/activity teachers, two elementary and three high school teachers. Some 45 teaching volunteers, who undergo a formal job-hire like screening process, also are listed as needed in the KPBSD.

Alaska Teacher Placement numbers from Aug. 4 showed the state had 155 teaching positions and 90 special education positions open across the state. On Aug. 15, 122 openings remained: 59 elementary school openings, 55 high school teachers and 8 vacancies in junior high schools. Substitute teacher needs remained at 56 openings.

Parker notes that Alaska’s 53 school districts typically hire 1,000 teachers each year due to high turnover numbers and retirement.

“We need to hire that number of teachers because we have a really high turnover rate, about 8 to 10 percent in the urban areas and 33 percent in rural areas,” Parker said.

Meanwhile, the University of Alaska system graduates about 200 to 250 new certified teachers per year. Given the UA system’s hard-hitting budget cuts – this year the budget is to be reduced by $7.8 million – the fear is that Alaska will be producing even fewer of its own home-grown teachers in the coming years, Parker said.

The rest of the country also has a teaching shortage, which means educators can take their pick of where to live.

“We bring educators in from the Lower 48, but now those in Alaska can also be considering where else they might want to go since our wages are flat here,” Parker said. “Meanwhile, wages in the Lower 48 have grown steadily by 2 to 5 percent per year for most years.”

Alaska schools are having trouble staying competitive as a marketplace. Salaries continue to drop. In actual dollars, Alaska is ranked 12th in the nation for teacher wages, even while the cost of living is higher.

Add to these woes the three past years of legislative budget stalls that didn’t add to the budget through either an income tax or a reconfiguration of Permanent Fund earnings.

“Teachers as potential hires might be saying to themselves, ‘why go there? I would get a pink slip at the end of the year’ as a newer teacher,” Parker said. “We put ourselves in a difficult box to attract and retain teachers from the Lower 48. They know that every year we’ve been handing out pink slips.”

Yet another side of the issue is that nationwide, the number of college students seeking teacher certifications has fallen, Parker said.

Studies show people aren’t interested in pursuing teaching careers because “people aren’t valuing the career. They beat up on teachers,” he added.

Bishop said the district is looking at ways to limit its teacher shortage and layoff losses through a better incentive system. Part of what catches the district up short in June is the late notice for a high number of teachers announcing retirement.

Suddenly, those vacancies — unforeseen when pink slips are handed out due to budgetary requirements — are an unknown that will have to be calculated in. In one district, $150 checks were handed out as incentives to teachers to alert the district by Dec. 30 of plans to retire.

“We lost about 300 teachers through attrition – and that’s a natural rate for the ASD because it’s around 1/10th,” Bishop said. “Many wait until June 30 to announce their retirement, which also keeps the district from planning.”

Another problem is difficulty filling nursing, librarian, special education openings and support staff, Bishop said. Schools compete with private sectors for these positions.

To head off budgetary uncertainty from a lagging legislative process that’s become the norm for the past three sessions, the ASD is planning on using some of its savings reserve to fill foreseeable gaps, Bishop said.

Currently the district has a reserve of $53 million, but much of that balance must stay in the bank by Municipality of Anchorage ordinance. Of that, $25 million needs to stay in reserve to guarantee bonds. Another $8 million is set aside for charter schools.

Reserve money is built up by happenstance, though, not planning.

“If what’s budgeted for gas to heat buildings isn’t fully spent, the balance goes into the reserve. If vacancies aren’t filled, the unspent salaries and benefits go into reserve,” Bishop said. “That’s not the best way to build up a reserve.”

08/16/2017 - 12:29pm