Money may not solve every problem, but it sure can help. The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows an upward trend in spending on teacher wages and benefits in Oklahoma between 2007 and 2017, the most recent data available, but school districts still find themselves losing qualified teachers to states with better pay.
Further compounding the situation is a shrinking pool of certified teachers to replace those who are leaving. As a result, some schools have to rely on emergency certifications to make sure enough certified staff are in the classrooms.
Lone Grove Public Schools superintendent Meri Jayne Miller says only one staff member in her school district has been hired under those emergency provisions. That number is down from three emergency certifications last year, according to data compiled by Oklahoma Watch.
“She has two years to complete her requirements for certification,” Miller said of the staff member hired with emergency certification.
State law provides guidelines for emergency certifications from the Oklahoma State Board of Education and requires districts to document all efforts to fill vacancies with certified teachers. “Decisions about hiring an emergency certified teacher are made by the district but comply with state guidelines,” Miller said.
Districts have to get creative if they want to recruit and retain certified teachers. Miller said Lone Grove is a negotiating district that gives teachers some leverage in securing benefits at the local level. One way Lone Grove Public Schools is hoping to recruit and keep certified teachers is by offering more long-term incentives and non-monetary benefits.
Statewide pay minimums for teachers are based on the type of education they have obtained and how long they have been with the school system. Legislation that went into effect in July gave Oklahoma educators a $1,200 across-the-board pay raise for the 2019-2020 school year. Annual pay raises are also given to teachers, but not forever.
“The state minimum only goes up to 25 years on the salary schedule,” Miller said. As a result, a teacher with a master’s degree and at least 25 years on the job will max out at $48,218 annually under state minimum requirements. Teachers in Lone Grove, however, can receive annual pay raises through year 27 and max out at $48,962 per year.
“I think there are several districts across the state of Oklahoma that are selecting to increase the salary scale to secure those veteran teachers, and to give our younger teachers something to look forward to,” Miller said, adding some districts have extended pay increases up to 32 years.
Miller said employee turnover within her district has slowed, but recruiting new teachers has gotten more difficult over the years. “The last two to three years have been pretty brutal for our school district,” she said of teacher turnover. If they don’t find a job and stay until retirement, Miller said many teachers in southern Oklahoma will choose to commute across the Red River for better opportunities — and pay —in Texas schools.
“You only have so much money to spend, and a majority of our general fund budget...goes for salaries,” she said, adding that up to 90% of a district’s general fund budget can go to payroll.
Stipends are being offered to Lone Grove employees this year. Miller said a back-to-school stipend was offered to all employees — including support staff — and a holiday stipend will also be offered later this year. Certified staff will receive a total of $1,200 in stipends this year, while support staff will receive $1,000.
“We were extremely pleased to do that for our staff this year,” Miller said.
With such tight overhead, administrators continue to look for ways to keep qualified teachers without drastically impacting their budgets. Another benefit offered to Lone Grove teachers for the past few years is something Miller called “wellness days.”
“This first semester, if they don’t take any days off, they get an extra day second semester and they can take it whenever they like,” Miller said, as long as it is scheduled and approved with their principal.
Other benefits without a major price tag that Lone Grove is trying to offer teachers include continuing education and opportunities to collaborate with other teachers. Miller said a workshop planned for district staff next month will allow teachers to share experiences and listen to a speaker from the State Board of Education.
“Teachers need that collaboration,” she said. “They can feel like they’re out on an island many times fighting these battles. Not only are they the teachers, but they’re the counselor, they’re the nurse, and they’re the liaison between home and school.”