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Rebecca Green | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Gearl Loden

Superintendent, Nixa Public Schools

Posted online

In the state budget awaiting Gov. Mike Parson’s signature, there’s a $29 million line item to fully fund a new baseline pay of $38,000 for teachers, up from $25,000. What will the impact be, and will this help the teacher shortage?
I’m all for teachers making more, and I’m so glad that the small percentage of teachers out there that were making under $38,000 are making $38,000. It won’t really have an impact on us. We’re at $40,100. We’re still working on budget meetings, and we’ll know more in June, but I would hope raises to be in the 3% to 4% range. We’ve talked so much about a shortage, and we’ve had a shortage for years, that I don’t believe people realize what kind of crisis situation we’re in. In 1970-71, we had over 170,000 teachers graduate with a bachelor’s degree in education. Since the ’70s, you’ve had about 4 or 5 million more children in the schools, you’ve had the special education programs that we have now, you have English Language Learner programs, you have class size reduction programs. But the last data that we can find, in the year 2016, there (were) 80,000 people that graduated with an education major. We’re going to have probably between 140,000 and 150,000 retiring and leaving the profession every year. You’re at a point now where even if you decide we’re going to pay whatever it takes, we’re going to make it free to go to school, it would take eight to 10 years to really move the dial. It is a wonderful profession. You’re in a field where you’re able to make a difference, and you know that you’re helping shape the future and be able to be part of a child’s life. We have a lot of great teachers in Nixa and our area.

The National Education Association ranked Missouri No. 47 for average teacher pay, at $52,481. Are we competing with neighboring states to keep teachers here?
I’m not totally clear on the Arkansas model, but they did approve a floor of $50,000. So, if you’re on the border of Arkansas, you can go make $50,000 starting out. It does concern me. Because you have very low unemployment, the corporate world can pay more and they’re very competitive. A lot of folks are recruiting teachers into other professions. The FBI is recruiting teachers. There (are) more options than ever before and people are aggressively recruiting teachers because they know they’re trainable. And then with a shift from COVID, if you’re graduating from college, your friends may be working hybrid jobs, working from home.

Nixa has about 6,700 students, and you previously estimated you would add 80-100 students annually over the next several years. How many more teachers will you need, and are you looking forward and planning for a gap?
We are able to fill in Nixa the positions that we have. The areas that we have where we find more challenges, like other districts, are special education services, math, science. If you have a degree in physics, what can you make in (the) private sector? The people that you have usually are going to be very good teachers. They know it’s their calling and their purpose and their passion. At the elementary level, we’re still able to fill our positions, but there are more challenges there. We proactively started a few years ago a Grow Your Own program. We actively recruit at the job fairs the universities have. We have some great partnerships with our local universities as far as taking student teachers or interns. We were one of the first districts to have interns that were 12-month interns with (Missouri State University). We’ve worked with MSU and are one of the leaders in the Pathways for Paras, where our (paraprofessionals) that are in the classrooms receive a bachelor’s degree in education at a very low cost. And one thing we’re setting the stage for, too, is that there are a lot of folks that I think really wish were teachers that maybe got talked out of it. Now you’ve got 20 years in a profession. Well, there (are) ways where you can add the certification, and we’ve had some success with that here. I’ve had success with that in other districts, especially if you have an economic downturn, and it does look like the economy’s cooling off. You could have someone that codes for a private company, and if they’d allow the person to come in and teach for a period of a day in specialized fields, they’re not going to leave their jobs paying $120,000, $150,000 a year to be a teacher, probably. There (are) opportunities to make it more affordable and attractive so students are going to go into the profession because they can have a very low-cost education to be a teacher.

Is the proposed increase in baseline pay from the state aggressive enough to impact this shortage?
When you look at the increase in pay, the number [of teachers] that were impacted by the pay increase is like 11%. We take the (funds) the state gives us, and we take our local taxes and we try to add to our folks every year. But when other states are giving multiple thousands of dollars pay raises yearly or every few years, we’re not able to match that with our local tax dollars. The money the schools are receiving is basically flat since the foundation formula in the state funding model has not been adjusted to provide for any increases in state funding. A few add-on programs have increased, but when you add in the increasing costs due to inflation and no increase in funding, one could argue that schools have less money to do what needs to be done to provide for students and teachers. Missouri has been deemed to be a lot more progressive than Alabama, Mississippi or Arkansas, but all the states I just named are paying a good bit more starting teachers out than our state. I don’t have all the answers, but we have people that are in charge that are elected that I have faith they can figure it out when they make it a priority.


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