Schools short on staff spend big in order to attract, and keep, teachers
Imagine shopping for school supplies only to find the store has run out of backpacks or notebooks or highlighters. That’s what it feels like for many school districts as they search for teachers.
In response, K-12 schools in Iowa and across the country are offering big money to educators as they race to find enough people to teach subjects ranging from government and Spanish to math and special education.
Des Moines Public Schools is no different. More than 300 teachers resigned or retired across Iowa’s largest district last year, which was at least 80 more than the year before.
“Missing a teacher is tough, right, missing any teacher is tough,” said DMPS Interim Superintendent Matt Smith.
Administrators saw what was coming and worked out a new deal with the teachers union — a $50,000 bonus to the retirement accounts of educators nearing the end of their careers if they choose to stay one more year with the district.
The money comes from an existing account that can be used for retirement incentives and is targeted at teachers at least 60 years old who have worked 15 or more consecutive years with DMPS.
Two of the teachers taking the $50,000 are Mary O’Connor, 61, and her husband David, 60. She teaches P.E. and he teaches social studies at Merrill Middle School.
They were ready to retire last year — ready for less stress and more time to themselves. At the time they had missed out on an early retirement incentive. That’s when a different thought came to mind.
“We actually came up with the idea of what if they paid us to stay?” Mary said.
Taking the offer gives the district advanced notice of which teachers are retiring at the end of the 2022-2023 school year. That allows the recruiting process to start right away.
For the O’Connors, it means being able to afford health coverage until they qualify for Medicare.
“I think the important thing for us was the chance to have some buy-in on the insurance that we have, which we love, before we turn 65,” Mary said.
So far, 58 educators have taken the offer. Fifty-thousand dollars is more than some teachers’ annual salary, but Smith said it was worth the cost to avoid an even worse staffing problem.
“Those are nearly 60 positions that were not vacant in Des Moines Public Schools for us also trying to fill, and so that’s another year of instruction that students are going to benefit from, from these individuals that have got just a wealth of experience and they're so successful with kids,” he said.
Schools spending big
Paying teachers to not retire is unique, but retention and hiring bonuses upwards of $2,000 or $5,000 dollars are common across the U.S.
Some schools are willing to give even more. A high school near Charlotte, North Carolina is offering a $10,000 sign-on bonus looking for someone to teach math. A school in New Mexico will give more than $20,000 when you count compensation for moving costs.
Schools should be careful what they commit to attracting staff said Paul Bruno, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois. If they do offer cash incentives, he said, they should target the jobs that are hardest to fill. That may be math teachers or hourly workers like bus drivers.
“Given that the unemployment rate is so low and the labor market is so tight, if you want workers in these positions you’re often going to need to be competing more aggressively and that means compensating them more,” Bruno said.
According to Bruno, many schools are spending federal pandemic assistance money to quickly add more teachers, but they’re competing for a supply that has been shaken by stress in the classroom. The pandemic and right-wing political rhetoric have more educators thinking about changing careers.
The result is staffing challenges that impact schools unevenly.
“Different school districts, different schools within the same district may have very different staffing challenges," Bruno said. "And even within the same school, schools may have a much harder time filling some positions than others.”
Elizabeth Steiner of the RAND Corporation has surveyed educators on what would encourage them to stay. Money is number one, but time is also high on the list.
“Working fewer hours per week was another thing,” Steiner said. “And these are all related issues. Perhaps if there were more teachers or more support staff in the classroom teachers might feel able to work fewer hours per week.”
Filling the gaps
As it stands in Des Moines, 97 percent of the teaching spots are filled. That includes the chronic shortage area of special education. Reaching that mark is a credit, in part, to the $50,000 deal to put off retirement.
Social studies teacher David O’Connor said what strikes him is that just a couple of years ago DMPS paid about the same amount for teachers to retire early. For this year, that's all different because of the shortage.
“Right now, at least, it’s a one year thing,” O’Connor said. “So it helps for the short term but there’s still the long term issue still there.”
In fact, dozens of jobs remain open in Des Moines. That means current teachers will be filling gaps to cover for the ones the district wasn't able to hire.
“Having more kids in your classrooms, less support for students, means that general-ed classroom teacher is going to need to do even more,” said Josh Brown, president of the Des Moines Education Association.
The toll that takes could shape what the teacher shortage looks like next summer.
Des Moines Public Schools is a financial supporter of Iowa Public Radio