As school districts across Arkansas finalize contracts for teachers, bus drivers and other district employees before the start of the first school year under a sweeping education package, many report fewer departures than they feared.
Their strategy: transparency, clear communication and lots of planning.
After the LEARNS Act was filed in late February, some district administrators worried they would struggle to fairly compensate teachers for their experience or education levels, and that other employees would feel the sting of not receiving similar increases to their own wages. They wondered whether the many people essential to districts’ everyday operations would leave their posts in search of better pay elsewhere.
Mountain View School District Superintendent Brent Howard, in an interview at the end of March, said he was concerned over what changes to wages would do to the morale of not only teachers, but also of non-licensed staff, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians.
“I can tell you this,” he said at the time. “The school doesn’t run without those people.”
Many of the superintendents’ fears over their ability to retain employees stem from the limits of LEARNS’ funding for educators and other school staff.
Under the package, initially unveiled by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and co-sponsored by state Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, public school teachers’ minimum salaries will increase to at least $50,000. Teachers making above the new $50,000-a-year minimum also will receive a $2,000 raise and can earn a bonus of up to $10,000 for good performance or being willing to teach a subject matter or in a geographic area that is in high demand.
The state is paying for the entirety of the $50,000 minimum salary increases and $2,000 raises for teachers, according to state Education Secretary Jacob Oliva.
However, some administrative leaders worried their districts would struggle to fairly compensate teachers for their experience or education levels as a result of the law. That arrangement, in which teachers with greater experience or a higher level of education receive additional pay, is known as a “salary schedule.” Each level of additional pay is called a “step.”
LEARNS repeals the state’s salary schedule for teachers, instead requiring each school district to come up with its own pay structure for educators. In addition, any raises districts plan to give for classified staff or employees in federally funded positions must be funded through other sources.
Some superintendents have pointed out that if they wish to maintain a scale similar to the one they used before LEARNS, the cost to their districts could be in the millions. First-year teachers in a district where the minimum salary is $36,000 would see a $14,000, or 38%, increase in pay to $50,000. A teacher with several years of experience and a $48,000 salary would see only a $2,000, or 4%, increase funded by LEARNS. Any additional compensation for experience or education would have to be paid through other means.
Compounding frustration for veteran teachers and classified staff seeking a commensurate rate of increase in their wages, some superintendents at districts that will see at least some salary schedule compression next year acknowledged it may be some time before the schedule’s steps return to resemble what they were before LEARNS became law, if at all.
Cindy Ault, a special education teacher in Perryville who has been an educator for 34 years, described the experience as “disheartening.” “I’m all for new teachers making more money,” Ault said. “It’s been needed to be done for a long time. However, I think you need to consider your veteran teachers as well.” Her sister, Lisa Neihouse, is a science teacher in Alma. Despite her 39 years in teaching, Neihouse is also getting the flat $2,000 raise. Neihouse said she believes the pressure on district administrators is to retain educators and other staff despite compressed schedules and LEARNS’ myriad other changes to education.
“I think superintendents right now are in probably one of the most stressful points in their career in Arkansas,” she said.
Craig Dupuy, superintendent for the Cleveland School District, said he was aware that many of his veteran teachers have been concerned over the size of their raises.
“I understand that,” he said. “You’ve been in the business this long and you’ve put in as many years as they have, and to catch $2,000 when a beginning teacher is coming in with $14,000 is hard to stomach.” While the minimum salary increase “does wonders” to recruit new teachers, Dupuy added, “It doesn’t say much for the teachers that have been here as far as retention, how they feel and what they’re worth.” Other issues also threaten the number of district employees who will return next year.
Hot Springs schools saw considerable turnover this year due to covid and pregnancy, among other factors, said Mina Perez, an administrative assistant for human capital and federal programs for the district. According to Perez, roughly 94 positions have dropped in the district since August.
“Typically a hiring year for us looks like 30 replacements,” she said. “So this is a magnitude for us.” Educators grappling over whether they feel they are being paid enough to remain at their schools for the next year must weigh the chance of facing these other challenges.
Teacher turnover remained “relatively stable” over the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, but rose at the start of the 2022-23 school year, according to a report from the University of Arkansas’ Office of Education Policy. The report attributes much of the turnover to moving to non-instructional roles or leaving education completely.
“Education is one of the most underpaid jobs there are and it is among the hardest,” Perez said. “They don’t work just eight to four. They are there at six-thirty in the morning, and they may trudge out of there five-thirty, six.” Perez said that, in facing these challenges, they are required to ask themselves, “Is it worth the risk?” These employees, from custodians to experienced teachers, are all critical to districts’ success, however, according to administrators.
The Office of Education report describes teachers as “the most important school-based factor for students’ success.” Many educators emphasized the importance of veteran teachers.
During an interview in late March, Jacksonville-North Pulaski Special School District Superintendent Jeremy Owoh said it’s financially better for districts to retain teachers than hire new ones. Training new teachers costs more than doing so for those with experience, he said.
Further, he pointed to research that suggested better outcomes often come from teachers who have been able to take the time to grow relationships with the children they teach and the communities in which they work.
In addition to applying their experience directly to students in the classroom, Neihouse said that veteran teachers perform another key task: mentoring newer educators.
“As you do more of it you get better at it,” the Alma teacher said of teaching. “None of us are perfect, but we are improved with every year.” Neihouse said schools work best then they are home to a mix of new, mid-career and long-term educators. When veteran teachers move to another district or depart the profession entirely, those with less classroom experience lose out on valuable opportunities to learn from others.
“We all learn from each other,” she said.
Owoh predicted in March that many educators might move from one district to another that can afford a more robust salary scale. However, he added that some might go beyond even that.
“If we’re not honoring the experienced licensed personnel they’ll start looking at other professions,” he said.
On Wednesday, however, Owoh said that the Jacksonville-North Pulaski District has so far seen few employees reject contracts for the coming school year. The district issued its contracts last week, said the superintendent, who described the process as “going well.”
“There’s vacancies, but definitely not like what we’ve had in the past,” he said.
Some employees were moving out of the area, while others opted for promotions, according to the superintendent. But he added that the district has had more teachers this year who resigned at one point but requested to remain with the district.
“If a teacher or personnel member resigned that’s usually the final step,” Owoh said. “So to have teachers to decide that they want to remain, I think that’s a positive thing.”
A majority of the district’s contracts were returned the first day that they were issued. While some revisions needed to be made due to LEARNS, staff were able to sign their contracts once those changes were made, according to the superintendent.
Licensed staff, such as teachers, have 30 days to review and sign their contracts, Owoh said. Even after those contracts are signed, licensed employees have 10 days after the last student contact day to get out of their agreement.
Classified staff aren’t required to follow a similar timeline, but the superintendent said the district usually gets those contracts back in the same amount of time.
Dupuy, the Cleveland County superintendent, also said he hadn’t yet seen much turnover in his district for the coming school year. The district had gotten 41 out of 65 contracts back by Monday afternoon.
The superintendent said they were “running a little bit late” in getting out classified contracts, though the district has hired everyone back.
Classified staff didn’t yet know on Monday what they would be paid for the next year, as the district was still working to confirm what raises they could afford to give them.
Hamburg School District Superintendent Tracy Streeter said her schools were seeing “a tad more” turnover than in most years. However, none of the employees who left cited changes due to LEARNS as a motivating factor.
“Most of them were strictly circumstantial,” she said.
According to Streeter, the district hasn’t rehired employees to fill four vacancies. The money previously used to fund those positions will be used to give classified employees a raise, she said.
The process of distributing contracts and retaining employees for next year would have been much more difficult for Hamburg had the district not practiced strong communication through the years, the superintendent said.
“Some of that conversation may have been ‘this is what I know, this is what I don’t know,’ but still in all we’ve really upped the ante on communications,” she said.
District administrators in Hamburg strove to have open conversation with employees about what they had the funding to do, and what was lacking.
“Is it perfect? No. I would not say that it’s a model at all,” Streeter said. However, she pointed out that employees have been able to walk away with a better understanding of the situation.
In her 29 years of experience, Streeter said she has “gone through a couple of valleys.” Districts in southeast Arkansas, where Hamburg is located, often face declining enrollment, according to the superintendent. Such decreases can affect their funding and ability to hire or retain employees.
“This is not anything new for us,” she said.
In addition, teachers are accustomed to shifting their roles to fill vacancies as needed.
“When our contracts are written it doesn’t say ‘Ms. Jones, second grade teacher,’” she said. “It simply says ‘Ms. Jones, teacher.’” The superintendent also relied on the experience and advice of others to ensure retention of district employees and ensure that students continue to be taught “at the highest level that we possibly can.”
“And despite the cuts that we have to put in place, I don’t want kids’ education to suffer,” she said.
Owoh said his district began working on scenarios for contracts and employee pay once administrators started getting wind of salary schedule expectations.
Administrators were ready in April to get information to the district’s board of education before May 1. The process required a lot of preparations and meetings, he said.
The superintendent attributed some of the district’s retention success to its commitment to maintaining a strong culture.
“We’ve been making a concerted effort of removing barriers and road blocks and red tape,” he said. “I think people are seeing that.” Owoh also said his district has been communicative about its aims to honor educators’ experience and education. The superintendent said he believes teachers recognize that the district hopes to increase their pay in future school years.
“We assured them that our goal is to increase those steps from this year forward, so as we grow we’re also making sure we also increase our salary schedules for licensed and classified,” he said.
In Cleveland County, Dupuy said the “next big cliff” many districts will face is going to be over whether classified staff sign their contracts for the next school year.
The superintendent described a 33-cent raise as “about the best we can do” given his district’s funding matrix. However, the district will try to push that to 50 cents.
“I know that our staff will not be satisfied with that because they’ve been told they’re getting $2 an hour,” he said.
The district’s staff are there because they love the kids they serve, Dupuy said. “But they could go to fast-food restaurants and make more per hour than what I’m paying for out here. That’s crazy.” He added that he “would not ever fault one of them for leaving, because they have to do what they need to do for their families to survive.”
Owoh said that he will keep a careful eye on student enrollment for the next school year. Like Streeter, he is aware of the impact decreases in enrollment can have on a district’s funding.
“Fiscally, if we lose a lot of students, we cannot support the increase in salaries,” he said.
While the district grew by about 250 students from the previous school year to the current one, Owoh said that it is impossible to really tell what a district’s enrollment will be until the first week of school.
Fortunately, districts have a year to course-correct after unanticipated changes in enrollment, according to the superintendent.
“We’re definitely monitoring that, but what we don’t want is for our students to return and not have a teacher,” he said.
Ault and Neihouse, the Perryville and Alma teachers respectively, both said they plan to return for the following school year despite their frustrations over pay and their worries that other veteran teachers may not feel the same way.
“I come back for the kids,” Ault said. However, “Does that mean I need to live in poverty? No.”