Among rural school districts, Mid-Buchanan RV may be one of the lucky ones.
Missouri as a whole has borne the burden of being one of the worst states in the union when it comes to paying a junior teacher. That situation is improving, and the Missouri Blue Ribbon Commission for Teacher Recruitment and Retention finalized new ideas on October 18 to help. Locally, a climate of growth in Mid-Buchanan funds salaries above the norm for a rural district, yet still receives nominal support from the state. Most educators in rural Missouri have no such fortune.
More than 8,000 full-time Show Me State educators didn’t make at least $38,000 in salary last year. The national average is well above this. Even beginners earn an average of $42,000.
This is recognized by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as a factor in the more than 6,000 vacancies across Missouri. About 66,645 people work as K-12 educators statewide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Penny Aid, for now
When Show Me’s state leaders decided earlier this year to finally require school districts to pay at least $38,000 a year, Mid-Buchanan, which has about 875 enrolled students, decided it would only need five of his help, to achieve this mark employees.
The lowest-paid mid-book teacher previously earned $37,500. The district applied to DESE for a $490 bounty, which—combined with $210 in local taxpayer money—met all payroll obligations. Ultimately, the increase caused a total financial damage of $6,000 to $7,000 against a budget of about $4 million.
While this impact is little more than a tenth of 1% of the budget value, it doesn’t always have to be that way.
“Every year smaller districts ask themselves, ‘What’s going to break the bank?'” said Superintendent Jay Albright. “My biggest fear is that as a state we will have difficulties financing the money for teachers’ salaries. (Mid-Buchanan is) growing. We have the capacity to pay more. We may not always have this capacity.”
In fact, the special funding to reach the $38,000 mark after the end of this fiscal year on June 30, 2023 will not apply. The Missouri Legislature has the option to extend it when it meets in Jefferson City on January 4, but there is no obligation to do this.
This leaves at least two major challenges. First, $38,000 probably won’t end up where the state minimum will end up. On Oct. 18, the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended lawmakers subject the $38,000 minimum to an annual review and an increase if factors such as inflation make it necessary. Second, there is the “compression factor”.
For public school districts, teacher salaries are awarded on a schedule. It would be unusual to negotiate salary; Pay is mainly based on acquired qualifications (e.g. a master’s degree) and years of experience. Some teachers have worked for years to earn $38,000. Now, in some districts, career starters do it from the start.
“Once you raise the baseline, there is compression across the board,” said Mark Walker, a Springfield, Missouri company executive, in comments while presenting the commission’s findings to the Missouri State Board of Education. “And for those Missouri teachers who are above that minimum, how do we deal with that compression? … It probably has one of the biggest impacts in the system.”
Albright said compression can affect many educators.
“This has caused a lot of resentment in the educational world,” he said. “Some people have been doing this for 20 years and suddenly the new hire is making the same as you. A lot of people worry about the compression factor.”
Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, Chair of the Missouri Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, noted the ability of this problem to generate more demand for spending, after Money is spent on salaries.
“I don’t think a lot of thought has been given to the fact that once you raise the money for the people below, the people above want more,” she said. “One problem leads to another.”
Danielle Beers, a fourth grade teacher working at Mid-Buchanan Elementary, decided early on after graduating Bishop LeBlond High School that she would pursue a degree. It’s common for new teachers to do this, partly because it means a higher starting salary.
But this could be seen as urging Missouri teachers to invest more time, more money and more energy in earning their way to financial stability. Most of them, Beers said, would prefer to focus only on serving their children.
“The impact we have on children should be recognized because of the dedication we have to our work,” Beers said. “And I think a lot of teachers are burning out because it’s not being recognized.”
St. Joseph’s Bob Wollenman, another member of the Blue Ribbon Commission, said the way forward begins with educating the public about the need for more investment.
“I really think there’s a real lack of knowledge, even at the legislative level,” he said. “Sure, at the parental level, at the grandparent level. In all areas of life there is a lack of knowledge about the dilemmas that education is facing today.”
Mid-Buchanan Elementary School principal April Campbell worries the state will face a situation where it simply won’t produce enough people willing to pursue an education. Nationwide, career stress is high, required credentials and certifications can be daunting, and financial rewards fall short of needs.
“Education is a great opportunity, but we’re losing great teachers to the field because sometimes they have to have more than one job because our salary is low,” she said. “Nobody should have to have a part-time job to make classroom work financially viable.”
To try to address such issues, the commission invited four lawmakers to serve as members, including O’Laughlin. She supports the commission’s recommendations on pay, but said she has tried to underscore her belief that higher pay alone will not solve Missouri’s teacher shortage.
“Although I believe we need to pay teachers more, I think the culture and environment within the school is also a major barrier to teacher recruitment and retention. And I pointed that out when I was on the commission,” she said.
How to spend more or save
Everything seems to be up in the air, she added, trying to find the best way forward. Counties need more money to pay teachers better. But the cost of education can also be addressed and teachers’ work experience can be improved.
“Personally, I feel like we were better off when kids were using pen and paper, reading books, and spending a lot less time connected to the internet or using a tablet,” O’Laughlin said. “I feel like we’ve been mostly switching to tablets throughout the day at school. Kids are so connected to their devices that they can’t look you in the eye and communicate clearly. This over-reliance poses a problem for teachers, and yet we turn around and buy every student a tablet.”
O’Laughlin’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, pointed out that when lawmakers have money to spend, the preference is to return it to the taxpayer. Most recently, lawmakers lowered the income tax for most residents from 6% in 2018 to 4.95%. The first $1,000 of earned income is now not taxable at the state level.
“Legislators have passed tax cut legislation four times in the last eight years,” Arthur said. “So there’s a commitment to a low tax rate in Missouri, but it’s also important that we need to make public investments in public goods.”
The state has generated an enormous financial surplus, almost $5 billion. Lawmakers may be tempted to cut taxes further in January. Spending on public services should be a priority, Arthur said.
“It’s a good fiscal environment to make some of these important long-term investments,” she said. “Strong, quality public schools are a cornerstone of American democracy. And it means we have safer communities, we have stronger communities.”
Wollenman, the owner of the Deluxe Truck Stop, said he supports tax cuts just like any business owner. However, their impact may be limited because many Missourians pay no income tax at all.
“The thing I’m looking at there is if we cut taxes by a billion dollars, those billions of dollars are going to flow back primarily to those who pay taxes in the state,” he said. “Whereas if that money was kept and went into the school system, every taxpayer in the state would have benefited.”