The Anchorage School District has seen a large number of educators resign and retire, a trend that has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic upended life and education in Alaska. , the trend continues this year.
Anchorage education leaders say a combination of factors, including a lack of competitive retirement benefits, stagnant state funding and the steep tuition fees imposed on educators in recent years, may be responsible for school closures. said to be high. And the school district continues to be understaffed.
For many years, the number of educators leaving the district with a teaching license hovered around 300 each year, according to school district data. This includes classroom teachers, speech pathologists, and librarians.
But by the end of the 2021-22 school year, 416 of the nearly 3,000 teachers have left their jobs. And at least 352 teachers have retired so far this year, with more expected over the summer. In addition, the percentage of teachers retiring has also surged, from her 8.2% of union members in 2017 to his 13.5% last year.
In a nationally representative study, the RAND Corporation estimated that teacher turnover in the 2021-22 school year will be about 14% of urban educators, putting Anchorage schools on par with school districts nationwide.
“There’s a lot of pressure on educators right now,” says Corey Eist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, a teachers’ union that represents educators in the district.
Teachers have lost autonomy, are under pressure from their communities and families, and their pay and retirement plans are less competitive than those in neighboring states, Eist said. Meanwhile, teachers are seeing larger class sizes, more behavioral problems among students, and fewer and fewer resources to address those problems, Aist said.
At the same time, culture wars dominate the debate over education across the United States and Alaska, filling public testimony minutes of school boards. And in Alaska, the state’s annual per-student allocation has remained fairly flat for many years, with school districts across the state being held back by budgetary issues.
And Alaska’s college system is producing far fewer teachers than it has vacancies, and school districts will have to look externally for teacher hires, according to Anchorage school superintendent Jarrett Bryant. means. However, Alaska does not have a defined benefit pension plan for teachers. This is a system that guarantees teachers a monthly amount after retirement.
“If we don’t act, we will have the least experienced and most precarious teacher workforce in the country,” Bryant said. “And I think a big part of that is how Alaska chooses its approach to pensions.”
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Teacher fatigue and pressure
Bryant said school districts can bring new teachers into their schools, but some are quick to realize that teachers in neighboring states like Oregon and Washington have better salary and pension options. said there would be.
“I hypothesize that many people will come to Alaska and as they progress in their careers, they will find that they want the option of having the hope of an honorable retirement at the end of their service,” he said.
A bipartisan majority in the Alaska Senate named public employee pension reform as its top priority this year, but it didn’t get to a vote, but said it plans to push the reform forward in the next legislative session.
At the same time, the legislature passed a $680 per student bill, a temporary increase in education funding subject to governor approval. However, because this is a one-time grant, school districts aren’t sure they’ll get the same funding next year. Many supporters argue that a permanent, inflation-proof increase is needed to keep the labor force and meet rising costs.
“Teachers are still in the classroom with students, we really need community support, and we need Congress to fund education to a level that will sustain educators in Anchorage and Alaska.” Aist said. “Data speaks for itself.”
Anchorage School District teacher Marnie Hartil, who has been with the school district since 2009 and currently teaches virtual English in high schools, will retire at the end of the year. After stagnant funding, poor retirement options, and multiple involuntary job transfers, Hartil chose to retire and work in Washington state this year.
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Hartil said they would get more affordable health care and lower housing costs, as well as the autonomy to build a career and technical education program there. But it’s hard for her to leave the community, she says. Hartil said that while she was excited about the opportunity to teach in Washington, she felt she was not happy to leave and that she was letting people down. she said.
“It’s heartbreaking to leave the community,” Hartil said. “For teachers and counselors and special education teachers, this is not normal. We want to stay somewhere else and retire there.”
Hartil, a volunteer with the Anchorage Educational Association, emphasized the need for adequate public education funding and improved teacher retirement plans to better support the district’s students.
“If funds are flat and underfunded, we cannot meet the needs of our students,” she said. “And if educators are not respected for their living expenses and their profession, we are not meeting the needs of our students.”
Anchorage School District Counselor Susan Miller has been with the district for nearly 30 years, spending the last 19 years at a service high school before retiring at the end of this year. Miller feels exhausted amid the ongoing changes and challenges imposed on educators and the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
“I hate to always bring up the novel coronavirus and blame it on the novel coronavirus, but those years really caused a lot of burnout,” Miller said. “So I’m just tired.”
“It’s time to leave”
Educator vacancies aren’t the only thing plaguing the district. The district is having trouble hiring bus drivers, student support staff and student nutrition staff.
Filling support staff positions at Creekside Park Elementary School has been one of the most difficult hiring challenges this year, according to the school’s principal, David Crystal. The school did not have a secretary until last month, and four special education posts were vacant, he said.
District Human Resources Manager Marty Lang said teaching was already a rewarding job even before the pandemic. Then COVID-19 made things even more difficult. And school districts have seen people with the ability to resign or retire do so.
Lang also noted that early retirement incentives were offered to some teachers in the mid-1990s, and many veteran teachers retired.The district will next hire about 600 new teachers, many of I was able to retire with defined benefits and medical insurance.
In addition, the state’s uniform funding problem has a “depressing effect” on educators. Uncertainty over whether younger teachers will be laid off grows each year as student-teacher ratios within school districts change and class sizes grow, Lang said.
Losing teachers can be costly, Lang said, as professional development time and experience remain in the hands of educators. And if the position remains unfilled, This may affect other parts of the building as students may be spread across multiple classrooms and eventually require long-term replacement students.
Special education is consistently the hardest to hire in the teaching profession, according to Lang. He knows that school districts can’t fill all the open positions, so he’s hiring retired special education teachers to cover some positions, and he’s working in areas where applicants are low. said it works with companies to contract employees. The district also subsidizes the education of paraprofessionals in the hope that one day they will become classroom teachers.
Miller, one of many teachers leaving the school district at the end of the school year, said she will likely spend her retirement caring for her aging parents and seven grandchildren. But she will miss working with students, she said.
“I could work for a few more years to make my retirement a little more fulfilling, but I think it’s time to retire now. I can do other things if needed,” Miller said. .
Daily News reporter Iris Samuels contributed to this report.