Until recently, we had a math teacher at Madison High School who was a very good teacher, loved children, and had a special talent for working with kids who struggled with math. He started his career making $31,000 per year. After five years, he was still making $31,000. He recently left to take an engineering position in Texas to make over $100,000 a year. His departure was a tragedy on multiple levels. Although his heart was with the kids in the classroom, he could not see any financially viable path forward while teaching in Idaho.
Another recent departure was a young man who held a certificate teaching special education. He was a rare find, someone actually qualified who truly possessed the kind and patient nature so desperately needed for children with special needs in our schools. After two years at $31,000, he left for Wyoming (only 40 miles away from our district) for $60,000 and a significantly smaller student caseload. Again, he wanted to stay, but seeing the past as prologue, he felt there was little hope for seeing his salary increase much.
This year in the Madison district, we have been looking for five math teachers, a vocational teacher (we have had to conduct a national search to find an applicant), special education teachers, speech language pathologists, and others. The list goes on and vacancies remain.
As Idaho emerges from the grips of the Great Recession, despite a positive financial boost in funding this year from the state Legislature, numerous school districts are struggling to attract and retain qualified teachers. Madison has witnessed a 61.9 percent staff turnover in the last four years. We have lost teachers who flee for higher wages to Wyoming, BYU-Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. But when we started losing them to Utah because even that state paid more, I began to despair.
Staff turnover is costly and inefficient. Repetitious induction trainings are not cost effective. Though new teachers are great and have much enthusiasm, they lack the teaching savvy and expertise that comes with actual years in real classrooms working with a diversity of children. Building staff cohesion and developing programs are also stymied when teachers pack up and leave after one or two years.
As an original member of Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education, I recommended that we address fiscal stability with highly competitive base salaries as the premier cornerstone in addressing Idaho's education needs. No other "reform" means anything unless there are competent, experienced teachers who feel appropriately compensated and appreciated in our classrooms.
My hope remains that fiscal stability will be the top priority of future task force work and of the Legislature.
Let's keep our talented teachers here in Idaho by starting to provide a viable competitive wage.
Thomas is superintendent of Madison School District and a member of the governor's Task Force for Improving Education.