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CEO Roundtable: Public Education

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Springfield Business Journal Executive Editor Christine Temple discusses K-12 public education with area superintendents Chris Bauman, Ozark School District; Grenita Lathan, Springfield Public Schools; Gearl Loden, Nixa Public Schools; and Matt Pearce, Republic School District.

Christine Temple: The National Education Association reported earlier this year that Missouri ranked second to last nationwide for starting teacher pay. With a new state budget passed this summer, starting pay was lifted from $25,000 to $38,000. What is the starting wage within your teacher workforce? What hiring challenges are you facing?
Gearl Loden: When you talk to teachers, they don’t expect to be paid what the corporate world would make. But to have a competitive salary where you would like to go to school to be a teacher and could afford the debt that goes along with it would be very nice, and to be able to provide for your family. When you look at our state, we’re not a high tax state, but we’re mixed. You look at the dollars the state allocates to schools, and you compare us to other states and you factor in [that] the constitution gives authority to the state to be responsible for education. We’re the lowest in the nation. Even with the [teacher pay] grant, it’s just a one-year grant. After one year, if the state does not continue it, we’ll go back to being last. Being a native of Mississippi, I pulled up my former district, which would be about $2,000 above the average to $3,000 above the average district, a new teacher there would start out at over $46,000. In a neighboring district, you’re going to make $42,000 to $43,000 with no experience. We don’t have to say we’re competing with California and New York, but if you’re in southwest Missouri, we have to compete with Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma if we’re going to be able to attract industry into our region and also to have quality teachers.
Temple: Your average wage?
Loden: We’re staring at slightly over $40,000.
Chris Bauman: Ozark is $40,000.
Matt Pearce: $40,500 or $40,600.
Bauman: All of our schools didn’t have the opportunity to even take advantage of the grant because of the size of the schools. Ozark has been well above $38,000 for a number of years. Our districts are competing really in a very different way. We’ve got to become competitive in a lot of areas. When you have a student adequacy target that has not changed since 2006, which is how districts are receiving funding from the state, that’s a concern and creates a challenge for our districts to really be competitive. It’s putting more and more pressure on our local economies. In the community of Ozark, we’ve not asked for a tax increase since 2003. Tell me something since 2003 that cost the same. Those are the pressures. We really need to have a conversation at a much higher level than I think what we’ve had in the past.
Grenita Lathan: We’re right around $42,000.
Loden: People read the taglines in the media and they think, well, they’ve raised the salary to $38,000. No, the starting salary is still $25,000 and your local community pays the difference and you’re looking at a grant that’s good for one year. The rural districts that did pick up the extra dollars after one year, if the state doesn’t continue with funding, they’ll have to pick it back up. If Chris is paying someone $40,000 and the state says we can go to $50,000, well, if we give everyone $10,000 at the beginning, that means you’ve got to adjust all along your salary scales. We were playing with it in Nixa and in about three years we would be bankrupt if we had a model like that.
Loden: Like Chris is saying with raising taxes, we went out my first year and knocked on doors and had meetings.
Bauman: That was impressive.
Loden: We were able to get the voters on board to raise taxes and a big portion went to teacher pay, but still, it was only $1,000 per teacher. It’s hard at your local level to match when other states are going $2,000, $3,000 up to $5,000 across the board for all teachers across the state.
Bauman: Ozark has experienced the same thing. We’ve been given these tools to financially manage our districts and then it kind of feels like it’s that one step forward and then two steps back.
Pearce: We’re grabbing the low-hanging fruit. We’re taking those $25,000, $27,000 districts up to $38,000 and we’re not addressing the whole problem. We need to be talking about $45,000, $47,000, $49,000 for a starting salary. This is also a big part of that recruitment and retention piece, too, of what’s coming in the pipeline. If prospective teachers and university students don’t see a way to get a degree, pay off the degree, have a nice-paying job that they can raise and support a family with, they’re not going to go in that direction.

Open positions
Temple: How many positions do you have open right now? How are you adjusting to shortages?
Lathan: Right now, our vacancies are actually in the paraprofessional side. We need teacher assistants and other support staff, custodians. We were basically fully staffed, maybe short four to eight positions, but you factor in some medical leave and maternity leave. It’s really the paraprofessional area that we need to address right now.
Temple: Is salary causing that?
Lathan: Our board actually did a great job this year of increasing salary. We increased the lowest paid employee rate wages up to at least minimum $14. Most of our employees receive $15 or $16 an hour, but it’s just getting those people staffed. These are mainly positions that support special education students and students that need additional assistance.
Bauman: It’s the same thing that we’re facing. We raised that hourly rate up, trying to address the same thing, but we’re struggling. Teaching positions have been filled, but it’s the support staff.
Pearce: I would add that in about May of this year, the teacher applicant pool looked very different than it has in years past. For open positions and specifically upper-level science, math, special education – really difficult to find a person that can come in and fulfill those duties later in the hiring season. If you don’t have it done in March or April, it’s not going to look pretty in May or June. We do have openings in what we call classified positions.
Temple: Has that impacted what you’re able to offer at the school?
Pearce: It hasn’t changed what we’re offering as far as course loads and classes go. We’ve had to do a lot more support and scaffolding for brand new teachers that are maybe coming in, didn’t get the chance to student teach. Some of the people who are coming into the profession right now were impacted by COVID, with practicum units in the universities.
Bauman: When you have these vacancies, you don’t lessen the service to kids, but that means it’s being provided by staff members taking on two and three jobs. That then is where you start wearing people out because you’re pushing them and pushing them because they want to take care of kids, it’s why they’re in the industry. Then your burnout rate becomes much higher.
Lathan: In most recent years, you were able to get retirees to come in at least for short term; we are having a hard time getting retirees for some of those vacancies now. People are tired.
Temple: Do you look at turnover rate, and how has that shifted?
Lathan: We do. Not only at the administrative level, but also classroom level. Then we of course survey people to see why they’re leaving our district. What we’ve found most recently and very surprisingly at the administrative level, people are leaving and a lot of people are working from home. They’re finding jobs that allow them to work remotely.
Loden: We’ve actually lost a few of our newer teachers to that because their friends are working the hybrid model. I had lunch a while back with a businessperson and he said, Dr. Loden, we’re recruiting teachers, we can’t find employees. We know we can pay a teacher around $70,000 to $80,000 and then in a few years they’ll be like $100,000. When we’re saying you have to be with the kindergartners all day, every day, and someone saying you can make $80,000 and be hybrid. Most places have vacancies right now. When I first arrived five years ago, we could cherry pick some people that were really good elementary people that didn’t get jobs and we could hire them as paras and then we could move into a teaching job. Now, the elementary field has changed. And then at the secondary level, if you have someone that’s special that has been with you and they have the higher-level math and if they decide to retire, you may lose your dual credit certification that you have. You’re always trying to look and plan ahead.
Lathan: Building capacity.
Bauman: Our application pool has shifted. It was not that long ago, 2015, 2016, we’d post an elementary position, and you’d have 200 applications hit. Now, you’re lucky if you’re getting 20, 25. We kept talking about the shortage, and I think COVID just accelerated it just enormously. Now this ability to work from home, we’ve had exactly the same issue in Ozark –people having that opportunity and this work/life balance that people are seeking.

COVID impacts
Temple: The National Center for Education Statistics released a reading and mathematics assessment for 9-year-old students. They found during the COVID-19 pandemic, the average score for those students declined in reading for the first time in 30 years and for math for the first time ever. Are you seeing those challenges?
Bauman: What those scores show is that children being with teachers is important. They have to be in the same room with each other. If I’m looking to somebody on a screen, it’s very different than me watching the body language of a child in a classroom, and teachers pick up on those things and it makes a huge difference. In Ozark, we experienced that decline as well. Even though we were in school the whole time, we still missed that first year in the pandemic, 22,000 student days. That’s a lot of days. Our scores showed that.
Lathan: We had online learning, but the time was reduced with teacher/student interaction as it relates to the number of hours that a student was actually truly online and engaged with the teacher. That did have a tremendous impact. You think about that kindergartner that’s a second grader now and that time that they truly lost, although we were virtual, they lost time. They lost that time where a teacher can observe and sit and pull a student close by and do some one-on-one interventions.
Pearce: In that particular research, they looked at 9-year-olds. They were 7 years old when we shut down for the end of the quarter in 2020. In first grade, we expect students to jump six to seven reading levels from the time they come in to the time that they end. Most of that happens after Christmas, where they’re learning how to read to learn. The data was a little bit cherry picked because there was a huge impact with that group of kids and I think we all saw it. They are coming back, but they’re fragile. They didn’t have that caring, loving teacher to pull them by their side and to give them a little bit of extra help. We’re continuing to offer them ways to get them up to speed.
Lathan: From March 2020 to May 2020, it really was about social/emotional well-being. Let’s just be honest, with teachers making sure they were online, that students were OK, things were OK with them at home, we were trying to deal with food issues, health issues. So, you think about what learning did truly occur from March to May of 2020?
Temple: Will that impact be felt for years?
Loden: Our test scores actually improved ahead of what they were prior to COVID and they were really good before. With the social and emotional needs of your children and the changes at home and what Matt was saying, children arriving in kindergarten and first grade that are behind because they’ve had a mask on and they’ve been isolated and not out and amid other peers, that’s going to be something that’s going to impact us for years. We’ve added more supports and still our children have lots of needs.
Lathan: For those students whose parents cannot help them get caught up academically, pay for additional tutoring support during the summer, we still are going to see the long-term impacts of both. Especially for children who were already behind because that’s part of the conversation that keeps getting omitted.
Bauman: And then behaviorally. The behaviors have spiked. If something’s being pointed out academically, I now misbehave because I don’t want it to stand out that I’m behind academically. Teachers then are struggling with a lot of that. Another piece of it … has been our political arena right now. It’s a real challenge. I don’t think that there’s a lot of positive feels out there or goodwill. Our focus needs to be on helping these fragile children, but it feels like at times there’s a lot of sideways energy that we’re trying to refocus people on what really is important.
Pearce: It’s not just our first and second graders. It’s some of our kindergartners who maybe were home with mom and dad for an extended period of time and didn’t get the chance to go to preschool and didn’t get as much chance to interact with other people. We are seeing some of those behaviors and probably in talking to kindergarten teachers, just a little bit less preparedness coming into kindergarten to socialize and to be ready to learn.
Bauman: I think this will impact us for a long time to come.
Loden: If a child is lacking, we’ve always adjusted to meet the child’s needs. And now we have better tools to meet needs and our teachers’ needs, too. If you’re struggling mentally, it’s been taboo to talk about it, and now we have more resources for our teachers. We’ve added social workers and as long as we have the funding and continue to build capacity.

Young learners
Temple: Are you expanding access to pre-K? It sounds like that’s a critical piece to come into school with certain skills.
Pearce: Republic and Ozark have opened new early childhood centers this year. We’ve more than doubled our capacity to serve preschool students in Republic. We’re very excited about that, but there’s still needs. We typically don’t take preschoolers until they’re 3, and we have employees as well as community members looking for quality child care for infants and younger than 3. We’re trying to think of ways that we can help and support that. We have about 250 of our preschool openings filled and we could take a little over 300 in future years.
Bauman: We renovated our old district office and expanded our early childhood. We had close to 200 kids on a waiting list. We were able to basically wipe that out. We, unfortunately, now are back to a waiting list, but we’re able to really accommodate many. If we’ve added 200 more students that are now getting service that didn’t before, that has a dramatic impact when they come in and begin school. We were thrilled that our community passed a bond in order for us to be able to provide that service, especially with it being early childhood, because you do get some dollars for those students from the state, but not every student. There’s some of that that’s just direct cost to the district.
Loden: Our country is so far behind. In less than 80 years, China will go from almost 1.5 billion people to 500 million. They’re selling more Depends in Japan right now than they do diapers. South Korea is offering almost $800 a month if you’ll have a child. Our country is facing the same issues and universal pre-K would be so wonderful. If we could have universal pre-K at age 4 or 5, when you try to compete with the rest of the world, they all started age 3 or 4 and they go by 20 to 30 extra days a year. The idea that a parent could send a child to a day care that’s not $1,000 a month and you have just not someone off the street but a certified teacher be phenomenal and give us competitive advantage economically.
Lathan: Right now, we have had to stop taking 3-year-olds because we don’t have those paraprofessionals to support. They’re on the waiting list. We might have the space, but you still have to have the workforce.

Legislation dreams
Temple: If you could snap your fingers and make a change to a piece of legislation or add a piece of legislation that would really make doing your mission easier, what would it be?
Lathan: For me, no legislation that impacts school districts or schools for at least five years.
Pearce: I would have to go back to Dr. Loden's thoughts on bringing that more universal pre-K into every district in the state of Missouri and really grabbing hold of those 3- and 4-year-olds so that every single one of them is kindergarten ready and can come in with confidence. That's dividends and keeps occurring. The student does better in the long run.
Bauman: What do they say, every dollar that's spent in early childhood can save you $16 later in interventions? That's a pretty good investment.
Loden: Even in the states that have made great strides in teacher pay, they're going to have a shortage for about the next eight to 10 years. Ours will be magnified more like what Kansas experienced a few years ago if positive strides don't occur. You could take the A+ program and modify it to that if a person's willing to be a teacher, they could go to any public institution in the state and will then defer the state loan for the next five years if you're in a classroom, then it's free. And then if I'm in a more impoverished district, I can add a stipend on top of that to put more incentives in place.
Bauman: You’ve asked some tough questions that obviously are getting down to some of our problems that we’ve had and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about some of our solutions. But I’ll tell you, and I know in Ozark and I’m 100% sure in these other districts as well, we have people who love kids and they want to work really hard and do work really hard every day. That really is what is amazing about the teaching profession. I want to take a moment to celebrate those people. That’s one of the reasons why we go back every day.

Support roles
Temple: Are bus drivers still a challenge to fill?
Lathan: It's still a challenge. We have the numbers that we need, but we still have our supervisors filling in as substitutes. We had to improve and increase those salaries. And we share people. They hop from district to district. We're around $18-$20 an hour, plus retention or attendance stipend that we also provide.
Bauman: One thing that helped us, though, is when we did increase those wages. We currently have a couple of food service positions open. Food service is a real challenge. Busing is because it's a split shift, but food service really is because it's the hourly wage that you're given plus what individual really can just work that one block in the middle of the day. It really makes it hard for us to compete, when I can go to a McDonald's and make $16, $17 an hour, and I get better hours.

Future workforce
Temple: Talking about labor shortages, you are educating the next workforce. How are you partnering with colleges, trade schools or organizations to make those connections in high school or before as far as preparing students for the workforce?
Lathan: We have a Grow Your Own program with (Missouri State University) that we signed last year for future teachers. Those students are at MSU, they'll receive tuition, forgiveness, and then they'll come back to SPS and teach for the number of years that we helped provide and support their tuition. We just started that last year.
Pearce: We all participate with (Ozarks Technical Community College), correct? [Everyone nods] So, building trades, mechanics, child care, we send our students to OTC to get those skills. I think the governor with his focus on jobs and specifically manufacturing, we're going to see some new and innovative ideas coming out of (the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education) and with school districts also in preparing students for those skilled labor positions.
Bauman: In Ozark this fall, we're opening up our Innovation Center and our high school has also transitioned to an academy's model. It really is not about workforce development or getting kids into careers, it's more about them following their passions and what their interests are. Workforce is a massive thing, so how do you pick what thing you're going to help a student identify? We really did look at industry around us and we have developed some strong business partners in helping us with this Innovation Center. That really for us has been exciting. We continue to use the GO CAPS program. We kind of collaborate on a lot of those things to keep them going forward. Education has got to do a good job in identifying and connecting those paths. Not every child is going to college, but they need to be going some direction and we need to help them do that.
Loden: We have the same cadre of tools to a certain degree. We partner with Springfield. We have GO CAPS. OTC has done a great job as far as working around (Department of Labor regulations) so kids do have internships and externships. We have interest inventory software that they start with at the junior high level, helps to explore different fields. We have put in three years ago a soft skills curriculum that all of our high school kids go through. We're really promoting the WorkKeys [assessment]. We believe our community has a lot of opportunities with advanced manufacturing and the use of the WorkKeys. Just about all the kids that had it ended up with bronze or higher with a few platforms along the way.

Excerpts by Executive Editor Christine Temple, ctemple@sbj.net.

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