Counties struggle to recruit teachers

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Paula Ledford is getting worried.

With a little over a month to go before school starts in Macon County, the school human resources director still has to find 15 people to fill vacant positions. The list includes assistant principals, elementary school faculty, teachers of exceptional children, and more. She’s digging deep — calling universities to ask about recent graduates that still might be looking for jobs, posting notices on as many Web sites as she can think of, even calling retired teachers to see if they’ll come back as a sub on a short-term basis. After all, Ledford says, “sometimes people will graduate in December,” which means she might be able to lure someone to Macon County by the winter.

At that time, Ledford may get a brief respite for a few weeks, and then the race to hire people to fill newly emerging vacancies will commence again.

So much for a summer vacation.

Teacher shortages are a chronic problem in a rapidly growing state like North Carolina. As associate dean of Western Carolina’s College of Education, Dale Carpenter says he hears it every year.

“Generally, for the last few years, we’ve been hearing the same number — that the state employs somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 12,000 new teachers each year, but even though there are 47 to 48 colleges that prepare teachers, only 3,000 are prepared each year.”

“So, you can see there’s somewhat of a problem there,” Carpenter said, especially when large school districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg require 1,500 new teachers each year.


WNC better than most

Though Carpenter says the situation in Western North Carolina is “not quite as dire as in the central and eastern parts of the state,” schools in this region still must compete for the small pool of new teachers that become licensed each year. This means convincing prospective applicants that the mountains are the place they want to be — even if it means giving up more lucrative salaries that can be earned in larger districts.

Every teacher in North Carolina earns the same state starting salary of $28,510, but it’s the bonus money — known as a supplement — that can increase that number. For example, Haywood County Schools gives its teachers a check for 4 percent of their salary in the middle of each school year. That supplement, however, is much smaller than Buncombe County’s 10 percent supplement. Larger systems like Guilford County provides its teachers with a supplemental check each month of roughly $200, on top of giving incentives like waiving an initial deposit to get their electricity turned on in their home.

In contrast, Macon and Jackson Counties have a 2 percent supplement, and Swain County doesn’t offer one. Obviously, teachers do not come to school districts like Swain for the money.

Along with the 4 percent supplement — which makes Haywood “competitive with other counties,” according to Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools — the district has partnered with the chamber of commerce to offer a sign-on bonus to new hires.

“The school system came to the chamber and said ‘We have a problem. The colleges aren’t putting out enough teachers and other counties offer a more more money than what Haywood County can do,’” said CeCe Hipps, executive director of the Haywood chamber.

The chamber took the message to businesses through the Golden Apple campaign.

“The only way to have a good school system is to have high quality teachers,” Hipps said of their pitch.

The money the chamber raised funded $600 signing bonuses for new teachers last year. This year, the chamber has raised $18,000 for the cause.

The school system also helps reimburse tuition, provides scholarships, and gives teachers some money to buy supplies and materials.


Creative recruitment

School systems in the mountains often tout the natural beauty of their area when recruiting, but that won’t feed a family. So what does a school system with little money do to attract teachers?

Though Jackson County lost 55 teachers this past school year — or about 22 percent of its total workforce, a number Human Resources Director Judy McConnell called unusually high — the county only has about five or six positions left to fill for the upcoming school year. Jackson only offers a 2 percent supplement.

McConnell is convinced that “the mountains themselves are a real draw,” and that Western Carolina University also attracts people to the area. The district recruits heavily from the graduates of Western’s College of Education.

McConnell also described a phenomenon that works to the school system’s advantage, one which no other school district mentioned.

“We are finding a lot of people are applying with us now that have retired in other states, particularly in Florida, and that are established homeowners in the area,” McConnell said.

Turns out, the mountains themselves often end up being a significant draw for teachers, many of whom seem willing to give up bigger city schools and higher salaries in exchange for the slower pace of life. Carpenter explained that Western North Carolina has “a reputation for having pretty good schools — they are managed well and supported well and so forth.”

Haywood County School Human Resources Director Carol Douglas agrees.

“Everybody wants to come to the mountains,” she said. “They know it’s sort of a slower lifestyle.”

This is good news to school systems with lower supplements in more rural areas, such as Macon County. Since they don’t have the supplements or amenities of other locations, Ledford said her schools capitalize on “people that really want to be in this kind of setting.” Many new recruits to Macon County “have been here and vacationed in Franklin, and a lot of them want to move from the city to a different type of life.”

But Ledford knows she can’t rely on that alone. That’s why this year she was excited to see a new pool of applicants at the job fairs she attended to recruit employees — licensed teachers from states like Michigan, who are fleeing the state in record numbers as the flailing automobile industry has shut down multiple factories and forced families to relocate. As a result, schools closed and the state found itself with a surplus of teachers.

Over in neighboring Swain County, Superintendent Robert White often relies on employees who don’t live in the county. Swain, which boasts no supplement but does offer its employees perks such as dental insurance and what White describes as a close-knit, supportive working environment, gets a “good portion” of its teachers from Jackson, Graham, Macon and Haywood counties. A meager 5 percent turnover rate a year serves as “testament to some of the things we must be doing,” White said.

White, however, fears that teachers who commute to Swain County to work may end up looking for jobs closer to home. He’s already had some employees leave because commuting was getting too expensive.

“They’ve been good, loyal, hard-working teachers who seem to enjoy the work, but we have to be realistic about this too. Gasoline is not getting any cheaper, and I’m sure that’s going to start stretching some budgets,” White said.

Relocation is sometimes not a very viable alternative to long commutes in places like Swain County. Like many other counties in Western North Carolina, Swain struggles with the issue of affordable housing.

“We really have a shortage of housing in this county. Swain is a big county as far as looking at it on a political map, but it’s a small county as far as privately owned properties,” White said. The federal government owns more than 80 percent of the property in Swain County.

And, White said, the houses currently going up are “extremely expensive right now.”

“People are asking prices and getting them for property — we’ve got housing construction going on but not enough that could possibly meet demand,” White said.

Buying a half million dollar home on a teacher’s salary is not feasible. The skyrocketing cost of housing in Western North Carolina is sure to have an impact on the teacher recruitment, and White believes it is already happening.

“It’s getting tougher every year” to recruit teachers, he said.

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