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Published in Print: August 1, 2000, as It's A Steal

It's A Steal

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Bidding wars break out as districts battle teacher poachers.

In Oklahoma, a state where cattle rustlers once roamed, authorities are worrying about a new form of thievery-teacher poaching. According to Oklahoma officials, districts in Texas, Arkansas, and Kansas are raiding Sooner State schools and making off with prized talent. The state department of education reports that about 1,000 teachers quit last summer, many of them lured across state lines by higher salaries.

This year, Oklahoma is fighting back, having raised the minimum salary for beginning teachers by $3,000 to $27,060. "Out-of-state recruiters are stealing our teachers," explains Sandy Garrett, the state's superintendent of education. "We knew we had to do something."

Bidding wars like this one have become common around the nation- especially during the summer hiring season-as the pool of teachers and administrators shrinks and demand grows. Federal estimates suggest schools will need to sign up 2 million new teachers this decade. Those who teach mathematics, science, bilingual education, or special ed are the most coveted. To attract talent, districts and states are hiking salaries, doling out signing bonuses, and beefing up benefits. Many are streamlining the hiring process and offering on-the-spot contracts at job fairs. Some are even partnering with real estate brokers to offer teachers discounted housing. The result in some districts and states is high turnover. "Man, we get raided all the time," groans Gene Neely, president of the Kansas National Education Association. People "love Midwestern teachers with Midwestern values."

Education leaders who complain that teachers are white-collar professionals paid blue-collar wages welcome the competition. "One of the few good things about the teacher shortage is that it could positively impact teacher salaries," says Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association.

Some school systems hit by raids are crying foul, however. They claim the staffs at good schools are being recruited through targeted radio and newspaper advertising as well as word of mouth. "It is predatory," says Doyle Niemann, a school board member in Prince George's County, Maryland. Niemann's district recently lost three of its 15 principals to neighboring, more affluent Montgomery County. "Among the people they've recruited are the outstanding principals who have the toughest challenges," he says. "We're in the position of becoming a training camp."

Others worry that the bidding wars undermine 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.

One district that's recruiting aggressively is Fort Worth, Texas. "We knew this was coming, so we geared up," says Elene Ondo of the 78,000-student district, the third largest in the state. "As the competition gets tougher and tougher, we've got to send out more and more people."

The district shops for teachers in 11 states from Nebraska to West Virginia, concentrating on areas where salaries are lower than in Texas or where colleges traditionally graduate more educators than are needed locally. Between 30 and 40 percent of the 600 new teachers Fort Worth hired for this fall are out-of-state imports, and many were won over by the district's generous salary package. Beginning teachers will make $33,050-roughly $6,000 more than the national average-and collect $2,000 bonuses if they teach in such high-need areas as science and special education. Other incentives include letters of intent issued to prospective employees at job fairs and the promise of a first-year mentor.

Gillian Smoak, 22, has signed up with Fort Worth to teach 7th grade math this fall. A recent graduate from Salisbury State University in Maryland, Smoak was recruited by nearby districts as well as several in Virginia and West Virginia. But she liked Fort Worth's fast-track hiring process-it made its offer in May, months before other school systems-and its salary package. "The other districts offered nothing over $30,000," she says. "There were no signing bonuses." The NEA's Chase warns that bonuses are a quick fix to the teacher shortage that will simply encourage teachers to jump from one district to another. Bonuses "are a one-shot deal that in the long term do not work," he says. "It may get them to sign on, but unless the issue of teacher salaries is addressed, it will not keep teachers there."

Teacher Cynthia 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, which is planning to raise salaries 13 percent and pay signing bonuses to teachers in shortage areas. "Each time I've moved to a new district, it has always been for more money and a better location," says Cox, a high school special education instructor who coaches girls' track in the 5,800-student Ankeny district outside Des Moines.

Cox said she is being courted to work as a consultant in Des Moines, a job that would increase her pay 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.

-Julie Blair

Vol. 12, Issue 1, Page 22

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