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State lags in recruiting new teachers

GILLETTE — Less than a week before a hearing about the status and pressures on Wyoming teaching salaries, a national poll ranked the Cowboy State fourth best in the nation for those in the teaching profession.

That’s a different message than what the Joint Education Committee heard from its own economic consultant last week.

Instead, Christina Stoddard told the legislators what superintendents and school board members from throughout the state later testified to: Teaching salaries, although among the best in the region, have eroded and fallen flat over the past several years, making it difficult to attract top talent to Wyoming schools.

“You’re reaching a point where you need to make some policy decisions,” Stoddard told the 13 state lawmakers on the committee.

A former business manager in the Campbell County School District and now a paid consultant, Stoddard told legislators that “the failure to recruit teachers from other states has brought Wyoming into a crisis in recruiting.”

Don Dihle offered a different perspective on teacher salaries. He produced a handout showing Wyoming’s School Foundation Funding Model salaries for beginning teachers. Dihle also is a consultant after spending more than 30 years with the Campbell County School District.

Under the state’s funding model, the average teacher salary has risen just a little more than $500 in the past decade, an increase of 0.14% over 10 years from $37,017 to $37,540 in 2009-10 to 2019-20, he said. That’s with four increases, or what the industry calls external cost adjustments, over that same period.

That ECA money, meant to adjust for inflation, is often used by school districts to offer raises to staff. And that, essentially, is what last week’s discussion was about.

Educational leaders from throughout Wyoming asked the committee to recommend awarding that money for a second straight year before the state falls further behind.

In making that request, one superintendent from southwest Wyoming referred to the state’s block grant funding system — which gives local school districts the leeway to decide how best to use the money they are allotted — as the “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach.

State Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, has a different description of the practice, however. It’s the “phantom teacher” theory, in which districts don’t fill all the positions they’re allowed in the Foundation Funding Model so they can raise salaries in other areas, such as for teachers.

That’s why Stoddard said the model’s average teacher salaries in Wyoming have declined since 2015 to $52,804, while actual average teaching salaries in the state have risen to $58,800, which exceeds the model’s average by about $6,000, or 11%.

Teresa Chaulk, superintendent of Lincoln County School District 1 in Kemmerer, put it succinctly.

“Last year we had six openings. We had a total of 12 applicants. We, too, increased our base (salary for teachers) from $44,000 to $49,000,” she said. “We did not have one elementary app (application). In July, we raised our base to $50,000. (School districts) are competing with ourselves every year. … We have to be competitive.”

Questioned by committee members, Chaulk said her school district has never received may applicants for teaching openings but the number has eroded even more than usual.

“We never get a lot,” she said. “We’re in Kemmerer. We used to get 13 to 17. The most we ever got was 30. We rob Peter to pay Paul. Hopefully we get the ECA.”

In Rock Springs, the fourth largest school district in Wyoming, it’s a similar story, said Carol Jelaco, chairman of the Sweetwater County 1 school board.

She said her district froze its teacher salaries for three years and then increased its base to $50,000 last year. After that, three school districts in Utah — prime recruiting ground for Rock Springs — also raised their base salaries to match.

“We lost our competitive edge,” she said, adding that Salt Lake City is now signing up teachers a year in advance.

“We have 25 positions we can’t fill,” Jelaco said. “When we were $10,000 above that range, we could compete for those teachers.”

Rock Springs’ superintendent Kelly McGovern added that in the first years the state took over funding, the district would receive more than 100 applicants for elementary teachers and every one of them would be certified. In 2017-18, the district received 30 applicants per teacher opening and not all were certified.

“Now, it’s zero,” she said.

“We were able to hire quality teachers at the start,” McGovern added.

Of the 25 teaching vacancies in Rock Springs at the start of the school year, the district condensed those to 15 positions by adding to class sizes and hiring long-term substitute teachers, she said.

Jelaco was asked why there was such a disparity between her district and the rest of Wyoming.

“I believe our average salary has been decreasing,” she said. “We’ve had to make some conscious decisions to reduce costs.

“We’ve traded class size, essentially the phantom teacher concept, to offer a better package. Our administrative salaries are lower than other districts our size.”

That was, in essence, the report Stoddard presented to legislators. Despite salary increases for teachers in Wyoming given this school year throughout much of the state, the movement in other states in the region has eroded competitiveness when it comes to recruiting quality teaching candidates.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, told Stoddard that “the cost pressure you provide us is regional mediocrity.”

“Most of the information presented is based on reality. It’s showing we’re kind of at a static point,” Rothfuss said. “We’re seeing a convergence with other states.

“As a chemical engineer mathy guy, that indicates there are cost pressures. Do you agree? The tradeoff in Wyoming is either salary or classroom size.”

The bottom line, some of the lawmakers reminded each other, is an annual $200 million deficit in education funding.

Ultimately, the committee voted 12-1 to recommend the Legislature give school districts a total of just over $19 million in an External Cost Adjustment in its budget session later this year.

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