Not a crisis, but a challenge

School districts struggle to hire in good economy

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/29/19

Much has been made recently about the positive state of the U.S. and North Carolina economies, of declining unemployment rates and rising job numbers.

But for public school districts like Chatham …

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Not a crisis, but a challenge

School districts struggle to hire in good economy

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Much has been made recently about the positive state of the U.S. and North Carolina economies, of declining unemployment rates and rising job numbers.

But for public school districts like Chatham County Schools, that development can have one negative effect: officials from the district say that when the economy is in good shape, it’s more difficult to recruit teachers, administrators and support personnel, for varying reasons.

“When the economy is good, people have choices,” said Janice Frazier, CCS’ assistant superintendent for human resources. “As to be expected, they exercise their choices. They’re looking for what they identify to be the best professional situation for themselves.”

It’s a development, Frazier said, that leaves candidate pools for openings “to be a bit more shallow.”

At present, there are about 50 position openings in the school district, with some jobs available now and some open for the 2019-2020 school year. Most of the non-teaching positions are for temporary bus drivers, but there are some jobs that have been posted for months but are yet to be filled. An opening for a school psychologist has been posted since Jan. 7. Pittsboro Elementary School has been advertising for a first-grade instructional assistant and bus driver since Oct. 2. A testing assistant/bus driver/in-school suspension instructional assistant position for Moncure School has been online since June 25.

While most if not all school districts — if not all companies or organizations Chatham County Schools’ size — will always have openings, any sizable number of job vacancies has an effect on an educational institution. Frazier said that while the shortage is not a “crisis,” it’s definitely a “challenge.”

“While we may have a delay or a lag time in filling a trade position, perhaps plumbing or electrical, we contract that work out,” she said. “The work gets done. We’re going to get the work accomplished, we’re going to take care of our kids and our staff and remain focused on our ultimate responsibility.”

When discussing the district’s local funding request for the 2019-2020 school year at the March 11 Chatham County Board of Education meeting, district CFO Tony Messer referenced the shortage when discussing teacher salary. Later that week, he told the News + Record that except for specialized areas like Exceptional Children’s education, there’s not much government entities can do to compete with other businesses.

“The one thing that we can bank on is the benefits side of it, but as far as recruiting employees, it’s really difficult,” Messer said. “They can go out into the private sector and find higher salaries. We can never compete wage-wise when the economy is good.”

Average public school teacher pay in North Carolina has risen in recent years. The state was 47th in the nation in 2013 but has risen to 29th in 2019 in that statistic, according to the National Education Association.

This comes at a time where, at the national and state level, public education is facing a couple barriers. According to a poll from PDK International, a teacher support organization, 54 percent of parents would not want their children pursue teaching in public schools as a career, the first time in the survey’s history it’s been above 50 percent.

Additionally, the Economic Policy Institute analyzed salary statistics across the country and measured the wage penalty — the difference between pay for a specific job and pay for other careers — for public school teachers. In 1979, teachers made 5.5 percent less than workers with comparable education and experience.

In 2017, that gap was 18.7 percent. In North Carolina that year, public school teachers made 35.5 percent less on average than other college graduates, the second highest gap in the nation behind Arizona (36.4 percent). The study also stated there was no state in America where teacher pay is equal to or better than that of other college graduates.

Frazier said that salary is “a critical component” of attracting teachers, and applauded the Chatham County Board of Commissioners for supporting recent increases in pay and a shift in the local salary supplement from a flat fee to a percentage. The county allocated $450,000 in its education budget to increase supplement funding, and the school board has asked for an additional $825,000 for the 2019-2020 budget for that same purpose.

“The work, the hours that teachers invest, that they’re called upon to invest in their job to fulfill the requirements, exceed well beyond what would be a typical work day,” Frazier said. “Helping teachers feel valued for what they contribute for their expertise that they contribute for the students daily...sends an important message to teachers and the profession they’ve chosen.”

But the district also reaches out in different ways. Frazier said it takes a more “personalized approach” trying to help people on an individual level and provide intangible assets beyond salary.

“I think there are many things that our district has to offer that matter to teachers beyond salary,” she said.

So while there are 50 or more job openings on Chatham County Schools’ website, it’s not a crisis, Frazier said, and they find a way to work everything out.

“It is not an option for us to fail to ensure that the services — from the basics of facilities and transportation and food services and instruction — (are delivered) to our students every day,” she said. “It’s going to happen.”


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