Alaska schools hire about 1,000 new teachers each year to offset the annual turnover of staff. And it’s a process that doesn’t come cheap.
Twenty million dollars is the approximate cost of replacing teachers lost to attrition each year throughout the state, according to a recent study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research.
And as school districts look for ways to make up for diminishing state funding, they’re also seeking ways to better invest the money they do have.
“When the district has money, their first priority is to channel that into the education of our students and improve quality of their experiences, the quality of their curriculum, all of those things,” Todd Hess, chief human resources officer for the Anchorage School District, said.
But, each year, ASD has to hire between 275 and 350 teachers, to replace those lost to turnover.
After accounting for administrative, recruitment and hiring costs — plus orientation and training — each of those positions costs the district $20,431.08, on average, to fill.
That totals out to about $5.6 million just in Anchorage.
And, the ISER study’s lead author, Dayna DeFeo, said those cost estimates are conservative.
“We estimated the time and the wages associated with doing all of these tasks and all of the people who were involved,” DeFeo said. “We didn’t calculate the benefits that are associated with those employee wages and that would add significantly to the cost, too.”
When a teacher leaves the district, the cost can be measured in more than dollars.
DeFeo said the more important impact is on the students.
“When a teacher turns over, it has a significant effect on the school climate, the continuity of instruction as teachers plan from one year to the next how they’re going to deliver content,” DeFeo said. “The school-community relationships are really contingent upon the stability of the staff in the school. And most importantly the impact on student learning.”
There’s general agreement that the solution to lessening districts’ budgetary burden for turnover isn’t necessarily reducing the more than $20,000-per-teacher cost, but instead emphasizing retention.
And when it comes to increasing retention rates, one common thread throughout the conversation is community.
“The Anchorage School District is employing a number of different efforts to bring people on and integrate them, not only into the school district, but also integrate them into the community, and trying to make connections with different aspects of the community as well as different teachers that live in the community, so that they feel connected to the community,” ASD’s Todd Hess said.
The importance of community connections is something Jack Walsh can agree with. He’s the superintendent of the Craig City School District, but he’s also a Chicago transplant who got his start in Alaska at Sand Point, where he said the community did a great job making him feel welcome.
“It wasn’t always perfect, you know,” Walsh said. “There were times where they wished I was doing things different and there were times I wished I had other opportunities there, but all in all, it was a great place to be and get my start.”
“And then has saw similar things happen in Kodiak, in Bristol Bay, and now in Craig that just kept encouraging me to stay.”
Now, 30 years later, Walsh is still in Alaska.
Around 70 percent of the teachers hired in Alaska each year come from out of state — many of them, Walsh said, with brand new teaching degrees.
“Remember if you’re coming out of a college or university and you’re taking your first teaching job, one of the things about that is, you know, university campuses have lots of different things available, often at low prices and stuff, including housing and things like that, you’re gonna move out here and find that there’s some challenges,” Walsh said.
Those types of challenges often make it difficult to retain newly-hired teachers, especially in rural districts, where turnover rates can be around 30 percent.
Larger, more urban districts average a turn-over rate of about 10 percent.
Research also suggests teachers hired in-state are more likely to stick around.
But with Alaska’s colleges and universities only graduating about 200 new teachers each year, that leaves the majority to be hired from the Lower 48.
And with state funding being set after many Alaska school districts have already finalized their budgets, teachers who want to stay in the state are often left wondering if they will have a job next year.