Kingman's teacher pay problem is an issue statewide

Photo illustration: SPARKY KNOWLTON/Miner

Photo illustration: SPARKY KNOWLTON/Miner

KINGMAN - For Roger Jacks, the teacher shortage in Arizona that has affected Kingman Unified School District mainly boils down to two things - low educator salaries and high certification standards for teachers looking to move to the state.

"Every superintendent I've talked to in Arizona is having this struggle," said Jacks, superintendent of the KUSD. "That's the central theme in this state, and it's a really difficult subject.

"When school was starting here, I talked to several districts, including Yuma, and a lot of them still had vacancies that were open. Like us, they were having to use substitute teachers until they could fill them."

The problem is especially critical in STEM courses - the state's core educational disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The industry generally pays college graduates in those fields much higher salaries outside of education, said Chris Nutt, the director of human resources for KUSD who is tasked with recruiting those graduates.

And the shortage problem is compounded by an influx of new teachers in other subjects and the loss of experienced teachers because of retirement and relocation. KUSD currently has 380 teachers, hiring 70 of them - most from out of state - at the beginning of the school year. Currently, eight teaching positions remain open.

KUSD's attrition rate is about 20 percent this year, which is considered average in Arizona.

Local issue

The struggle to pay KUSD educators higher salaries is such a problem locally that it has become the top issue among the five candidates running for three open seats on the KUSD school board.

While each identifies the need as critical, none has an answer on how to boost salaries at the district level.

The situation for Arizona's school districts is definitely frustrating, said Jeri Brock, who has been on the KUSD school board for four years and is running again. If a school district can't pay teachers enough, it can't expect them to stay and teach its students. Especially when teachers can move to other states and make more money.

"We would like to be able to compensate teachers, but the legislators have to put more funding in education instead of funneling it to prisons," said Brock. "The state wouldn't need the money for prisons if it was used for education in the first place. It's crucial this election that voters pay attention to which state candidates support education and want to fund it instead of draining it."

Statewide openings

The Arizona Department of Education also is aware there is a teacher shortage in Arizona, said Sally Stewart, public information officer for the agency. The primary reason for the higher number of vacancies throughout the state is stagnant salaries, she said.

Currently, there are 500 open educator positions posted on the department's job board.

The average teacher salary at KUSD is $35,000.The starting teacher salary of $29,000 in the district, which has 6,939 students, is lower than several school districts in Mohave County.

Lake Havasu Unified School District, which has 5,588 students, pays a base starting salary of $30,650 for inexperienced teachers. Littlefield Unified School District, with 430 students, offers $29,484 as a base starting salary to its new educators.

At least two Arizona school districts with comparable student populations also pay more than KUSD. Humboldt Unified School District, located in Prescott Valley and serving 5,864 students, has a base starting salary of $30,610. Creighton School District, which teaches 6,088 students in downtown Phoenix, pays $36,762 to new teachers.

All the districts pay an additional stipend to every teacher, based on varying criteria. The money comes from Proposition 301, an initiative passed by Arizona voters in 2000 that creates a funding stream for public education from a 0.6 percent sales tax. Last year, KUSD paid a $6,000 stipend to each teacher in the district.

"The teacher shortage is our No. 1 issue," said Susan Lugo, director of human resources for the Creighton district. "And I would say that low teacher salaries is the biggest factor causing it.

"Arizona needs to work a lot harder at becoming more competitive. We need to put our money where our mouth is so we can attract more teachers."

Regulatory hurdles

Another contributing factor to the teacher shortage in Arizona is the process out-of-state teachers must go through to get reciprocal certificates to teach here. KUSD's Jacks said the additional requirements and the limited time given by the state to complete them are a hurdle for the district in attracting teachers from other areas of the country.

Out-of-state educators with a bachelor's degree and a valid comparable teaching certificate must, within a year of living here, obtain an Arizona fingerprint clearance card. Also, they must take two knowledge examinations, complete three semester hours of training in English immersion and take a college course covering Arizona and the U.S. Constitution.

"It's a lot to have people accomplish in a year, so the department is seeing if this can be changed by action from the Legislature or the state board of education," said AZED's Stewart. "We do know the teacher shortage in Arizona is critical and we need to improve the requirements for getting a provisional certificate."

It's a crisis

The shortage is a statewide phenomenon but is only now being recognized in Arizona because it affects Maricopa County, said Dick Foreman, president and CEO of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition. The organization, headquartered in Phoenix, brings business and education leaders together to influence public education.

Foreman said the obvious reason is low pay for teachers, who relocate to new communities but aren't provided adequate compensation. Certification is another problem, especially in STEM courses where graduates have technical degrees but now have to get licenses.

Also, some teachers are choosing different career paths to avoid the pressure of meeting stringent new educational standards.

"We see this situation not as a shortage with a fix, but as a crisis with no immediate solution on the horizon," said Foreman. "The state has a responsibility to bring talented people in by providing needed incentives, but it's not doing this. Something has to change, but it took years to get in this situation and we won't be able to get out of it quickly."