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Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as Districts Wooing Teachers With Bonuses, Incentives

Districts Wooing Teachers With Bonuses, Incentives

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The raids happened in plain daylight, and the targets went eagerly, wooed over the borders by the promise of big bucks.

About 1,000 teachers employed by school districts in Oklahoma left their jobs between July and September of last year mainly to pursue higher salaries, according to a state education department report. A majority of those who stayed in teaching headed to Texas, where pay can be $6,000 more than in the Sooner State. Others fled to Arkansas and Kansas.

"Out-of-state recruiters are stealing our teachers," said Sandy Garrett, the state superintendent of education. "We knew we had to do something."

Lawmakers in Oklahoma are fighting back this year. They enacted a $3,000 increase in teacher salaries to help keep educators from leaving the state, Ms. Garrett said. Starting this fall, beginning teachers will earn $27,060.

Bidding wars like those raging in the south-central United States have become common around the nation—especially now, during hiring season—as the pool of teachers and administrators shrinks and demand for them grows.

To attract talent, districts and states are hiking salaries, adding signing bonuses, and beefing up benefits packages. Many are speeding up the hiring process and offering on-the-spot contracts to new educators at recruiting fairs. Some are even forming partnerships with real estate brokers to offer discounts on housing to make jobs more attractive.

District leaders say such practices are a reasonable reaction to a competitive marketplace. Some who are losing staff members, however, call such strategies unfair.

Though districts stop short of recruiting at school buildings, they are targeting teachers and administrators in specific schools through word of mouth and by advertising in local newspapers and on radio stations.

"It is predatory," said Doyle L. Niemann, a school board member in the 132,000-student Prince George's County, Md., district. The region represented by Mr. Niemann in suburban Washington is losing three of its 15 principals to neighboring, more affluent Montgomery County for the coming school year.

"Among the people they've recruited are the outstanding principals who have the toughest challenges," Mr. Niemann said. "We're in the position of becoming a training camp."

Healthy Competition

Many observers say the competition is healthy for a white-collar profession that has often been paid blue-collar wages.

"Man, we get raided all the time," said Gene Neely, the president of the Kansas National Education Association. "They love Midwestern teachers with Midwestern values. Idon't think it's unethical, and in some ways, it forces school districts in Kansas to open their eyes to what' going on."

Others, though, complain that bidding wars are further stratifying rich and poor communities and states.

"You can't have too many incentives at this point [for educators]," said Mildred J. Hudson, the chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a nonprofit organization in Belmont, Mass., that acts as a clearinghouse on teacher-retention and -training issues.

On the other hand, she added, such competition undermines the poorest districts and states—the very places in which good teachers are needed most. Some school systems simply don't have the money to play the bidding game, she said.

"That," Ms. Hudson said, "doesn't seem quite fair."

Gillian Smoak, 22, was recruited from Maryland to the Fort Worth Independent School District to teach 7th grade mathematics by a Texas-size salary—by beginning-teacher standards—and plenty of perks.

"Texas had the best offer," said Ms. Smoak, who was also recruited by districts in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. "The other districts offered nothing over $30,000. There were no signing bonuses."

Ms. Smoak can afford to be choosy: She's entering the profession at a time when demand is skyrocketing in many parts of the country. The U.S. Department of Education predicts schools will need to hire 2 million new teachers this decade. Those who teach mathematics, science, special education, or bilingual education are the most prized, as are teachers who agree to work in California, Florida, or Texas, where enrollments are soaring.

The competition is further fueled by efforts to decrease the teacher-to- student ratio in classrooms.

"We knew this was coming, so we geared up," said Elene Ondo, the director of employee recruiting and staffing for the 78,000- student Fort Worth district, the third largest in Texas. "As the competition gets tougher and tougher, we've got to send out more and more people."

Currently, the district shops for teachers in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where salaries tend to be lower than in Texas or where colleges traditionally produce more educators than are needed locally, according to Ms. Ondo. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the 600 new teachers Fort Worth hired for this fall will be imported from out of state, she said.

Recruiters there have been successful, Ms. Ondo said, because they offer generous packages. Beginning teachers earn $33,050 and are awarded $2,000 signing bonuses if they agree to teach in such high-need areas as science and special education.

Other incentives include letters of intent issued to prospective employees at recruiting fairs and the promise of participation in a mentoring program.

The district's fast hiring process helped Ms. Smoak make her final decision.

"I had a job in May," she said. "In Maryland, you had to wait until the end of July to find out if you had a job. I didn't know if I wanted to wait that long. I wanted to get settled before school started."

Recruiters for the Des Moines, Iowa, schools found they had trouble keeping the new teachers they were able to hire.

Many educators would work in the district for three or so years, receive sophisticated training and experience in fields such as special education, then leave for neighboring districts, said Linda S. Lane, the executive director of human-resources management for the 32,000-student district.

"Our salaries had slipped to a point where we could not compete with the surrounding suburbs," Ms. Lane said.

This year, Des Moines will raise salaries 13 percent, she said. Beginning teachers will now make $27,864. Educators who agree to teach in shortage areas will receive a $2,100 signing bonus over three years.

"It has proved to make a real difference," Ms. Lane said. "We still have some areas where we're short [of teachers], but in areas like English and elementary education, we got so many applications that we couldn't get them processed fast enough."

Money Matters

Cynthia J. Cox has spent the past several years hopscotching around Iowa in search of better pay and benefits. Now, she's determined to land in Des Moines.

"Each time I've moved to a new district, it has always been for more money and a better location," said Ms. Cox, a high school special education teacher who coaches girls' track in the 5,800-student Ankeny district outside Des Moines. "Right now, I'm trying to break my contract."

Ms. Cox said she is being courted to work as a consultant for the Des Moines district , a job that would increase her salary from $42,000 to $48,800. The hitch: She's bound by her current contract until a replacement can be found. So far, there are no takers.

Brenda Sellers is painfully aware of how bidding wars affect districts with limited financial clout. The assistant superintendent for personnel and support services for the 12,400-student Fort Smith, Ark., schools, is often asked to set up her recruiting booth adjacent to recruiters from Fort Worth at job fairs.

"They have huge signing bonuses, and their salaries are much greater than in Arkansas," Ms. Sellers said. "With that combination, many [prospective teachers] don't even bother to stop and talk to Fort Smith."

The base salary in Fort Smith is $23,400—about $10,000 less than in Fort Worth, she said.

So, Ms. Sellers pitches quality of life instead.

Bigger districts "have problems that we don't just because of their size," she said. "We've also got a new teacher-induction program. And here in Arkansas, we have beautiful parks, rivers, and lakes. There are no major traffic jams."

Still, the district is attempting to fight fire with fire, Ms. Sellers said. Salaries were raised $1,000 starting this fall, and teachers with zero to two years' experience who relocate will be paid a one-time, $2,000 stipend.

Leaders in the teaching profession say that such competition can be good for the field—provided that districts and states take the right approach when addressing the situation.

"One of the few good things about the teacher shortage is that it could positively impact upon teacher salaries," said Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association.

Risky Bonuses

The risk, however, is that districts will rely on bonuses to attract teachers, he said, enticing educators to leap from one district to another in search of better pay, and leaving some schools without teachers. Bonuses "are a one-shot deal that in the long term do not work," Mr. Chase said. "It may get them to sign on, but unless the issue of teacher salaries is addressed, it will not keep teachers there."

Districts and states will also have to better the quality of the teaching environment if they want to recruit and keep teachers, said Fred Frelow, the director of national affairs for the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a New York City-based group advocating highly qualified teachers for all students. "You can give teachers bonuses and raise their salaries, but you fundamentally have to work on the workplace and make sure that the folks you are recruiting will stay," Mr. Frelow said.

Districts need to look beyond their neighbors, he advises. "We're recommending that districts and states look at the pool of teachers as a national pool."

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Pages 1,17

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