As the nation faces a shortage of new teachers, local school districts not yet feeling the pinch

  • Rundlett Middle School ELS teacher Tracy Renuad works with a student last spring. Concord School District officials say they’ve had no trouble hiring new teachers despite a nationwide shortage of qualified educators. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Tuesday, September 06, 2016

In recent years, Concord School District’s Human Resources director Larry Prince has noticed a drop-off in the number of first-year teachers applying for jobs.

“This year, more than I can remember, we are putting teachers on higher steps because we’re not finding those first-year teachers,” Prince said.

That’s not to say Concord is having trouble finding teachers; Prince said it’s easy to find people with more experience to fill vacant spots.

“It’s not something that’s really inhibiting us at the moment,” he said.

As the rate of new teachers entering the profession drops nationwide, some New Hampshire schools say they aren’t yet feeling the pinch. Concord and other local school districts still have a large pool of applicants to hire from, even though fewer candidates in that pool are fresh out of graduate teaching programs.

So far this year, Prince hired 12 first-year teachers starting off in the district’s salary Step 1. Compared to that, he has hired 49 more teachers in Step 2 or above.

One of the reasons Concord doesn’t struggle to hire teachers is because the district is known for its high pay. Prince said the SAU regularly surveys other local and comparable school districts around the state, including Londonderry, Salem, Bow and Merrimack Valley, and is consistently in the top when it comes to staff salaries.

“Almost in every instance, Concord was the highest paying district,” he said. “That’s a huge recruitment tool for us.”

Concord paid its teachers on average $70,225 last school year, which is nearly $14,000 more per year than the state average. In fact, Concord is in the top 10 for average teacher salaries out of the 185 school districts in the state, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Concord has 14 salary steps that teachers can ascend, depending on their years of service and level of education.

While the youngest full-time teachers in Concord start out around $40,000, teachers in the top track make a starting salary of $81,000. The teachers who have advanced degrees can make more than $90,000.

Hiring educators with more experience also means paying them more, which in turn drives up average salary figures.

While Prince is technically hiring more teachers on higher salary tracks, he said it usually evens out when the oldest, highest-paid teachers retire.

“Today, we are on the good side of about $180,000 in savings,” he said in an interview earlier this summer. Prince estimates retirees usually save the district between $350,000 and $400,000 per year in salary reductions.

But there’s a cost, too, as teachers get paid for unused sick time they’ve accumulated over their careers when they retire, which can be an additional $15,000 on top of their salary.

In 2015, 13 teachers retired from the school district. Two of the three highest paid teachers in the district were among that list of retirees.

While Concord is not having trouble finding teachers to replace spots vacated by those retirees, other school districts across the nation aren’t so lucky.

Nationally, the number of new teachers entering the profession is down and enrollment in teaching majors in college has decreased 30 percent since the mid-2000s.

University of New Hampshire Department of Education Professor Leslie Couse trains future teachers and said she’s noticing significant changes in the profession.

“Our students want the same thing any of us want,” she said. “We want to feel valued, feel like we’re making a difference, want to be respected and want to make a living wage.”

Money is becoming a bigger factor for students thinking about getting a masters degree in education at UNH, Couse said.

After spending time and money on graduate work, an entry level teacher still starts out making a salary between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. Graduating with an engineering degree can yield a lot more money.

“It’s a profession,” Couse said. “Much like the medical profession and the law profession, you need to have certain levels of expertise and maturity for this really complex profession.”

Couse said the recession had a big effect on the number of people who were able to pursue education as a career.

“The recession had a big impact on graduate education in general,” she said. “If you get laid off, you don’t have the means to go back to college.”

With an increasing focus on accountability for teachers that was ushered in with standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, Couse said she’s starting to see attitudes about education change.

“Politically, we’ve seen a real shifting with a movement toward accountability,” Couse said. “In many ways, what that implies and the result is . . . a loss of trust and respect to teachers and the role they bring to their work.”

On top of that trend, New Hampshire’s state government has a propensity to downshift education costs onto local towns and school districts. With a decrease in adequacy aid, the absence of the building aid program and local communities expected to pick up retirement costs, money is becoming a real issue in small towns, where teacher pay is far from what it is in the state’s largest or wealthiest communities.

“We prepare for annual meeting 364 days a year,” said Merrimack Valley School District Superintendent Mark MacLean.

MacLean said downshifting costs are a continual burden on local communities, but he feels taxpayers in his district have been very understanding and supportive.

“We need to show we have benefit for everyone, even if you don’t have kids,” he said.

As a city, Concord does not have an annual meeting where voters can approve or veto a school budget.

Nevertheless, Prince said the district tries to make sure it’s being careful with taxpayer money.

“Concord is fortunate that our board is autonomous, so it doesn’t go to the voters, but I think they have been very fiscally responsible when it comes to that,” Prince said.

MacLean says Merrimack Valley so far has not had issues hiring teachers. While the district has lower salaries than neighboring Concord, MacLean says they make up for it in support and professional development.

When they get a new teacher in, MacLean and his assistant superintendent make a point to bring them a cup of coffee and ask them how they’re doing.

The message often is, “We can’t pay you the most money out of every district, but that’s not everything,” MacLean says. “We can let you grow in your craft.”

MacLean says positions like science and math teachers and special education teachers are harder to fill. Still, he feels the district has a good applicant pool when a position becomes available.

“We want to give people reasons to stay,” he said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)