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Short-staffed schools spend a lot to attract and keep teachers

Imagine shopping for school supplies only to find the store has run out of backpacks, notebooks, or highlighters. This is how many school districts feel when looking 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 to special education.

Des Moines public schools are no different. More than 300 teachers resigned or retired in Iowa’s largest district last year, at least 80 more than the year before.

“Missing a teacher is hard, it’s true, missing any teacher is hard,” said DMPS acting superintendent Matt Smith.

Trustees saw what was coming and struck a new deal with the teachers’ union — a $50,000 bonus to retirement accounts for late-career educators if they choose to stay another year in the district .

The money comes from an existing account that can be used for retirement incentives and is intended for teachers age 60 or older who have worked 15 or more consecutive years with DMPS.

Two of the teachers receiving the $50,000 are Mary O’Connor, 61, and her husband David, 60. She teaches physical education and he teaches social studies at Merrill Middle School.

They were ready to retire last year, ready to experience less stress and more time for themselves. At the time, they missed an early retirement incentive. That’s when a different thought came to my mind.

Mary and David O’Connor will return for one more year at Merrill Middle School, where they both taught for decades.

“We actually had the idea what would happen if they paid us to stay?” said Mary.

Accepting the offer gives the district advance notice of which teachers will be retiring at the end of the 2022-23 school year. This allows the recruitment process to begin right away.

For the O’Connors, that means being able to afford health coverage until they qualify for Medicare.

“I think the big thing for us was the ability to have some buy-in to the insurance that we have, that we love, before we turn 65,” Mary said.

So far, 58 educators have accepted the offer. Fifty thousand dollars is more than some teachers’ annual salary, but Smith said it’s worth it to avoid an even worse staffing problem.

“That’s almost 60 positions that weren’t vacant in the Des Moines public schools that we’re also trying to fill, and so that’s another year of education that students are going to benefit from, from those people who just a wealth of experience and they’re successful with the kids,” he says.

Schools spend big

Paying teachers not to retire is unique, but retention and hiring bonuses of up to $2,000 or $5,000 are common in the United States.

Some schools are willing to give even more. A high school near Charlotte, North Carolina, is offering a $10,000 sign-up bonus to find someone to teach math. A school in New Mexico will give more than $20,000 if you factor in compensation for moving expenses.

Schools need to be careful what they commit to attracting staff, said Paul Bruno, a professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois. If they offer cash incentives, he said, they should target the hardest-to-fill jobs. They can be math teachers or hourly workers like bus drivers.

“Because the unemployment rate is so low and the job market is so tight, if you want workers in those positions you often have to be more aggressive and that means paying them more,” Bruno said.

Future Roosevelt Roughriders watch a high school football scrimmage marking the return of school.

Future Roosevelt Roughriders watch a high school football scrimmage marking the return of school.

According to Bruno, many schools are spending federal pandemic aid money to quickly add more teachers, but they are vying for a supply that has been shaken by stress in the classroom. The pandemic and right-wing political rhetoric have more and more educators thinking about changing careers.

This results in staffing issues that impact schools unevenly.

“Different school districts, different schools within the same district can have very different staffing challenges,” Bruno said. “And even within the same school, schools can have a much harder time filling some positions than others.”

Elizabeth Steiner of the RAND Corporation asked educators what would encourage them to stay. Money is number one, but time is also high on the list.

“Working fewer hours a 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.

Fill gaps

Currently in Des Moines, 97% of teaching positions are filled. This includes the area of ​​chronic shortage of special education. Reaching that mark is a credit, in part, to the $50,000 deal to delay retirement.

Social studies professor David O’Connor said what strikes him is that just a few years ago DMPS was paying about the same amount for teachers to retire early. For this year, it’s quite different because of the shortage.

“Right now, at least, it’s a year-long thing,” O’Connor said. “So that helps in the short term, but there’s always the problem in the long term.”

In fact, dozens of jobs remain open in Des Moines. This means that current teachers will fill in the gaps to fill those the district has been unable to hire.

“Having more kids in your classrooms, less student support, means the general education teacher will have to do even more,” said Josh Brown, president of the Des Moines Education Association.

The resulting toll could shape what the teacher shortage will look like next summer.

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