Politics & Government

Lawmakers debate teacher raises as budget talks drag on

Joe Bremgartner, executive director for human resources at North Thurston Public Schools, talks about job opportunities with University of Washington student E’Braune Crowder during a job far at UW Tacoma on March 16. School districts are having to aggressively pursue candidates to fill teaching positions, which means many applicants at career fairs like this one are offered jobs on the spot, Bremgartner says.
Joe Bremgartner, executive director for human resources at North Thurston Public Schools, talks about job opportunities with University of Washington student E’Braune Crowder during a job far at UW Tacoma on March 16. School districts are having to aggressively pursue candidates to fill teaching positions, which means many applicants at career fairs like this one are offered jobs on the spot, Bremgartner says. lwong@thenewstribune.com

This time of year, Joe Bremgartner is out scouting for teachers every chance he gets.

As the executive director of human resources for North Thurston Public Schools, Bremgartner and his staff visited two job fairs this week, offering a few potential teachers jobs on the spot.

But those teachers usually have plenty of options, making it harder for school officials to fill open positions.

“It’s not at all uncommon if we go to a career fair to have three or four people offering a person a position at the same time,” Bremgartner said.

“ … It isn’t quite the market it once was, where you were lucky to have a job.”

A teacher shortage has created a high demand for qualified teachers in Washington state, according to a recent statewide survey of school principals.

… It isn’t quite the market it once was, where you were lucky to have a job.

Joe Bremgartner, executive director of human resources for North Thurston Public Schools

It’s a problem that is figuring prominently in negotiations over the state budget this year. While the Legislature has already approved some policy changes — including launching a statewide teacher recruitment initiative — budget negotiators remain divided on whether they also need to boost teachers’ pay this year.

Lawmakers adjourned their 60-day session March 10 without a deal on a 2016 supplemental budget. They now are in middle of a 30-day special session to finish their work.

State Rep. Hans Dunshee, the budget writer in the Democratic-controlled House, said the dispute over teacher raises is part of what is delaying a budget deal.

“We’re losing teachers throughout the system,” Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said Wednesday. “We’ve got to be able to compete in the marketplace, and we’re not.”

While House Democrats and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee have proposed boosting what the state pays for beginning teachers, the Senate’s proposed budget includes no money for teacher raises.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate would rather wait to raise teachers’ pay until next year, when the Legislature plans to address what the state Supreme Court has deemed an overreliance on local funding for basic education.

“It needs to be done, but it needs to be done in a comprehensive way, where we’re addressing the huge inequities between school districts at the same time,” Dammeier said.

DISTRICTS STRUGGLE TO RECRUIT

In the recent survey, 45 percent of the more than 700 principals who responded said they couldn’t find enough qualified candidates to fill all their teaching positions this year.

More than half of the surveyed principals said they also struggle to find enough substitute teachers on a regular basis. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction conducted the survey.

For officials at Franklin Pierce School District, the stark drop in applicants for teaching positions in recent years has become a major concern.

In 2009, the school district received 141 applications for a fifth-grade teacher position. In 2015, for a similar job teaching fifth grade, only 37 people applied, according to numbers provided by the school district.

Other teaching jobs are also drawing fewer applicants, including hard-to-fill openings teaching math, science and special education, according to Franklin Pierce.

District officials said they expect to have even more difficulty finding qualified applicants this year.

“There are fewer teachers in the pool this year than there were last year,” said Shaun Carey, Franklin Pierce’s assistant superintendent of human resources and business.

In 2009, the Franklin Pierce School District received 141 applications for a fifth-grade teacher position. In 2015, for a similar job teaching fifth grade, only 37 people applied, according to numbers provided by the school district.

Meanwhile, filling substitute teaching positions is also something districts such as Franklin Pierce struggle with day-to-day. So far in March, the district has had an average of roughly four absences each day that officials can’t find a substitute teacher to fill, Carey said.

Administrators have to get creative to cover those classes, often drafting other teachers to fill in during their planning periods, Carey said. Other times, school principals or other administrators will serve as substitutes for the day.

Part of what’s fueling the teacher shortage are recent mandates to lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and expand full-day kindergarten.

The state has been under a court order to make those changes in the school-funding case known as McCleary. Last year, lawmakers approved a two-year budget that spent $350 million to lower class sizes, and another $180 million to fund all-day kindergarten.

In districts like North Thurston, that meant district officials needed to hire two kindergarten teachers last year in place of every one that used to teach two half-day classes, Bremgartner said. Kindergarten teachers made up a large portion of the roughly 200 certified staff North Thurston hired last year, he said.

“Not only are there fewer teachers out there, but there have been pushes to lower class size and provide all-day kindergarten,” Bremgartner said. “All of those put a greater demand on the market for teachers.”

LOW PAY CITED AS BARRIER

Dammeier said Senate leaders have worked to improve some aspects of the teacher shortage by passing low-cost policy measures, especially dealing with the substitute teacher shortage.

A bill sponsored by Dammeier, Senate Bill 6455, will make it easier for retired teachers to serve as substitutes without hurting their pension benefits. The bill, which was negotiated with leaders in the state House, will allow teachers who choose to enter early retirement to work as substitute teachers up to 867 hours per school year without affecting their benefits.

In addition, the bill would make it easier for out-of-state teachers to get certifications in Washington, while setting up grant programs to help pay for teacher training costs.

“We’re addressing the most acute problem with substitutes, and then we’re putting in place the foundation for much more effective recruiting to bring in new professional teachers in the future,” Dammeier said.

Still, a spokesman for the state teachers union said those measures don’t go far enough, and that low pay remains a major barrier to people entering the profession. “It’s clear that the state is not doing enough to provide the professional pay and benefits to keep attracting and retaining the great educators our kids need,” said Rich Wood of the Washington Education Association.

Take Christie Murphy, a first-year teacher at Chinook Middle School in Lacey. After completing her master’s in education at Pacific Lutheran University last year, Murphy said she now makes about $48,000 per year teaching English and language arts to seventh- and eighth-graders.

Murphy, 29, said she and most other teachers enter the profession to make an impact in students’ lives, not to make money. However, low pay for teachers can send a message that the job — as well as the frequent after-hours work involved to plan curricula and grade papers — isn’t respected, she said.

“I do think that’s one of the first things people look at, which is, ‘How much can I make in that profession?’ ” Murphy said.

“In order to make the profession more attractive to people, that is one of the biggest things that needs to be changed.”

RAISES NOW OR LATER?

Democrats in the state House say the teacher shortage is an emergency lawmakers can’t wait another year to address.

They’ve proposed investing $56 million to raise the state portion of beginning teacher salaries to $40,000, which is about a $4,300 increase over the minimum the state pays a first-year-teacher now.

I do think that’s one of the first things people look at, which is, ‘How much can I make in that profession?’

Christie Murphy, a first-year teacher at Chinook Middle School in Lacey who makes about $48,000

House Democrats also proposed $28 million to give bonuses to teachers who pursue advanced certifications.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Senate hasn’t proposed money to increase teacher pay this year.

One reason Dammeier said teacher raises aren’t a high priority for Republicans is that school employees are already set to receive a cost-of-living increase in September, thanks to the two-year budget lawmakers passed in 2015.

Dammeier said it makes sense to wait to offer new raises until next year, when the Legislature plans to address larger school-funding problems that have landed the state in contempt of court.

In the McCleary case, the state Supreme Court has said the Legislature must fully fund public education by 2018. That will involve eliminating the use of local school district property tax levies to pay for teacher salaries, a practice the court said is unconstitutional and leads to inequitable funding between school districts.

Dammeier said until the Legislature solves the local levy problem, raising beginning teacher salaries will only widen the pay gaps that exist between different school districts.

“Until you figure out how to make it so Franklin Pierce isn’t paying $9,000 less than Puyallup or Tacoma, they’re going to be hugely disadvantaged,” Dammeier said.

But Dunshee said he and other House Democrats think the time to act is now, and Republicans are just making excuses to delay.

“There always seems to be legislatively a reason to do something later,” Dunshee said. “It’s sort of telling those kids in those crowded classrooms, and in those classrooms being taught by who knows who, ‘Just wait — we don’t have the courage to do anything.’ ”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

  Comments