Haywood struggling to retain teachers

For months now, a committee created by the Haywood County Board of Education has been looking for ways to entice teachers to remain in the system, with little success.

Teachers in the Haywood County school system receive supplement pay, which is allocated from the county budget and can account for 2 to 5 percent of their total base salary. Although the county’s supplement pay ranks in the top 25 percent of all North Carolina districts, it’s been eclipsed by surrounding counties, leading 28 Haywood educators to seek positions in Buncombe County alone. 

“It’s well documented that we’re losing teachers to surrounding counties with better supplement pay,” said School Board Chairman Chuck Francis. 

During a work session on Jan. 5, Haywood County Superintendent Dr. Anne Garrett presented an 80-page report detailing the results of the Recruitment and Retention Committee’s three meetings. She said that the county’s teacher turnover rate was 11.82 percent, which is “pretty standard” for a district with almost 700 teachers. 

Although some of that turnover can be attributed to natural attrition like retirement, Buncombe County’s average supplement pay is $3,721, compared to Haywood’s $1,967 average.

“You can’t blame the teachers, because it will make a difference not only in their current pay, but also in their retirement income,” Francis said. “If I was them, I’d be thinking ‘What is my long-term gain versus my short-term inconvenience of driving to a neighboring county?’”

Garrett lamented the loss.  

“These teachers were some of our very best teachers, our high performers,” she said. 

So what can be done to retain talented teachers, and keep Haywood County competitive in a labor market where more dollars make more sense to most applicants?

A recent request to county commissioners for increased funding fell on deaf ears, Francis said. 

“The county feels that funding is at an adequate level, and they don’t have the money to increase funding at a recurring level,” he said. 

Haywood County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said that if the school board wants to increase supplement pay, it could do so from the funding already provided by the county. 

“They have complete discretion over their funds,” Kirkpatrick said. “We don’t tell them what to do with the money.”

Francis was also pessimistic about North Carolina’s state legislature coming to the rescue. 

“Historically, the legislature has not been supportive of teacher pay increases,” he said. “They’ve focused on charter schools, vouchers and virtual schools. We’ve been reaching out to them as a board to let them feel our pain.”

What this means for Haywood County is that the board of education must look within its own budget if it wants to increase supplement pay. 

Despite the comparatively lower supplement pay — which isn’t exactly a recent development — Haywood County’s schools have been performing at very high levels. 

Last September it was announced that of 115 school districts in the state, only 10 fared better than Haywood County in the district performance composite, a yardstick that theoretically measures how well schools perform in a given year. 

Haywood’s 11th-place ranking is up from 15th place the previous two years, but demonstrates even greater growth over the past decade, when the county consistently scored near in the upper third of statewide school districts. 

Francis remains optimistic that the district can meet or beat last year’s results this year, despite 36.5 percent of departing teachers coming from the ranks of the kindergarten through fifth grade levels, where important basic skills are instilled in students.

“Look at how we got to where we are,” he said. “We’re using the assets we have wisely, and giving our teachers the tools they need to work smarter. It’s going to be tough, especially losing veteran teachers who got us to that point. But we’re going to keep improving.”

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