Why So Many Idaho Politicians Say It's Time To Raise Teacher Pay

Feb 2, 2015

St. Maries school superintendent Joseph Kren says he struggles to get enough applications for open teacher jobs.
Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

Starting salary for Idaho teachers is lower than in Washington, Oregon, and three other surrounding states. Superintendents in Idaho border towns say that’s left them with shortages. Idaho lawmakers in both parties want to raise teacher salaries during the legislative session.

Maybe at one time a school district like St. Maries in north Idaho could list a teaching job in the paper and it would be enough. But superintendent Joseph Kren says those days are long gone.

“This is the banner that goes across the top," says Kren.

This is the recruiting kit Kren takes to job fairs at universities. It's two big plastic bins full of dozens of photos of smiling, well-behaved looking students and a 12-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall backdrop.

"We try to make it as colorful as possible, to catch people's eyes," Kren says.

Kren says now, you've got to be a salesman.

“Because you want good quality people, everybody does," Kren says. "I mean, we're not afraid to 'Hi, I'm Joe Kren, superintendent. You know where St. Maries is? No, you don't? Oh, man, let me tell you about us.' That type of approach. You cannot wait for them to come to you."

And sometimes he'll get a bite.

“I've had great initial conversations," Kren says. "Then I take out our payscale. And a lot of times, attitudes change.”

The salary for a first-year teacher in Idaho is around $31,000. It doesn’t help that St. Maries is only 30 miles from Washington, where the teacher starting salary is 15 percent higher and teachers move a
up the payscale much faster.

 

Teaching jobs at Heyburn Elementary in St. Maries, Idaho, pay less than at schools across the border in Washington.
Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

This forces superintendents like Kren to, as he calls it, "get creative” – rearranging existing teachers' schedules and hiring people with related job experience through provisional certificates.

“I don't want to discredit the importance of having an educational foundation," Kren says. "You can't just hire anyone off the street. But I'll tell you what, there's times when we're looking for a math teacher [and I'm thinking,] 'Your first name's Matt? Close enough! Let's see if we can get you certified.'”

One of the largest districts in Idaho, Coeur d'Alene, is across the border from Spokane. Superintendent Matt Handelman says they can attract new teachers, but the problem is...

“...the folks who decide, 'You know, I've done this for awhile, you've trained me well, and now I can go sell my wares elsewhere,' so to speak."

An experienced teacher in another district got a $13,000 pay hike moving across the border to Oregon.

And it's not just on Idaho's western border.

Keith Leppert remembers having a drink one night with some fellow teachers in Idaho Falls. A former colleague who'd taken a job in to the east in Wyoming walked into the bar.

Leppert says everyone wanted to know--”how’s it going over there? How are the class sizes?”

“And you could kind of tell as that conversation's going on – everybody's in the back of their mind thinking, 'Is this something that I could do?" Leppert says.

A few years later, he did it.

Keith Leppert is now a high school math teacher in Buffalo, Wyoming. And he does get paid more, $6,000 or $7,000 more.

But Leppert says money was NOT the big reason he left his Idaho classroom.

It was about morale.

“It got to the point where teaching was looked on negatively, you know at the state level they just didn't care what teachers thought or felt," Leppert says. "Education in general, it didn’t look like it was going down a road that you really felt like the best interest of students was in mind."

In 2012, Idaho went through a bitter campaign over a series of laws the legislature passed aimed at reforming education. They included merit pay, limits on teacher contracts, and a plan that threatened to shift funding for teacher salaries to pay for a laptop for every student in Idaho. Teachers fought it at the ballot box, and they won. Voters overturned the laws.

But Coeur d'Alene superintendent Matt Handelman says with teachers, the image stuck.

“From what I've seen, the bigger issue than just pay is how teachers are treated or respected, or at least the perception of that," Handelman says.

Overall, the number of teachers leaving Idaho for schools in other states has declined since 2009, to 61 last year. However, since 2008, two other things have happened that worry districts. The number of teachers coming into Idaho from other states has plummeted -- from almost 900 in 2008 to 460 in 2013. And the number of Idaho teachers leaving the profession has tripled.

It’s gotten to the point that there’s widespread agreement in the capital that something has to change. The question is how.

Idaho's new schools chief Sherri Ybarra held a press conference recently where she discussed her proposals to raise school spending, reduce class sizes and boost to teacher pay.

“The one thing that's wonderful that's coming out of all these conversations is that we are all – we understand that attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is the basis of every one of our discussions,” Ybarra says.

The chair of a Senate tax committee – a Republican – has threatened to block tax cuts this year unless the state boosts starting teacher pay to $40,000 a year.

A “career ladder” proposal Republican Gov. Butch Otter is pushing would do just that, though through a five-year rollout.

Many details will have to be worked out in the legislature. But Joseph Kren in St. Maries is optimistic.

“If more money is given to those wages, then perhaps we can attract a few more people,” Kren says.

Kren doesn't know if the money will be enough to change Idaho’s reputation -- But he’s got a heck of a sales pitch for that.

Copyright 2015 Northwest News Network