Teachers say they are determined to work in Kansas schools despite the turmoil over funding and politics. Ruthe Goff, Hocker Grove Middle School’s art teacher, is a lifelong Kansas resident and can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. JILL TOYOSHIBA JTOYOSHIBA@KCSTAR.COM
Teachers say they are determined to work in Kansas schools despite the turmoil over funding and politics. Ruthe Goff, Hocker Grove Middle School’s art teacher, is a lifelong Kansas resident and can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. JILL TOYOSHIBA JTOYOSHIBA@KCSTAR.COM

Local

Times are tough for Kansas teachers, but reports of an exodus are exaggerated

By JOE ROBERTSON

jrobertson@kcstar.com

September 19, 2015 6:12 PM

Yes, most Kansas teachers you talk to are mad.

They’re tired. Politics and financial wars are wearing them thin, and some are leaving.

But the notion — fueled by dubious state numbers — that teachers are stampeding by the thousands for the border or out of teaching altogether is highly overblown.

New numbers broken down by school district, obtained by The Star, show a much more resilient teacher workforce.

Teachers, The Star found through interviews and in new data, are more deeply rooted against what they describe as increasingly harsh winds.

“I knew I would not get rich, but I never thought I would be under attack,” said Ellen Stevens, measuring where she is now in 35 years of teaching, the last 28 in Kansas. She teaches fourth grade at Shawnee Mission’s Broken Arrow Elementary School.

The legislative and judicial war over school funding “is terrible,” she said. “But I love my job. I love what I’m doing and I’m going to do it. That’s not going to change.”

A Kansas State Education Department report to the state school board in July — the Licensed Personnel Report — had thrown distressing numbers on the contentious plain.

The numbers, reported by many media outlets, showed an 85 percent increase in the number of Kansas teachers retiring in the four years since 2011; a 64 percent rise in the number of teachers leaving the state; and a 51 percent increase in those leaving the profession.

The report intensified frustration with Gov. Sam Brownback’s Legislature-backed income tax reduction that burdened the state with a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But when The Star requested a breakdown of the departing teachers by school districts, the numbers revealed flaws. State data specialists said those numbers did not represent a good head count, for reasons that included teachers being counted multiple times between districts or within different schools within districts.

Why teachers teach in Kansas

Teachers say they are determined to work in Kansas schools despite the turmoil over funding and politics. Hear why two teachers at Hocker Grove Middle School are staying in Kansas.

JILL TOYOSHIBA jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

New numbers from the state gave a head count of teacher departures and retirements totaling barely a third of the size of the original numbers.

Retirements over the four years increased by 11 percent, from 783 to 872, fueled in some part by teachers who accepted early retirement incentives from districts — including Shawnee Mission — looking to pare personnel costs.

Teachers leaving out of state grew by 19 percent, from 202 to 240, and were counterbalanced by incoming teachers from other states. Those leaving the profession went up by 8 percent, from 241 to 261.

Missouri school districts in the Kansas City area surveyed by The Star described an ordinary number of exchanges of teachers crossing the state line. That included the Independence School District, which had stoked a bit of a rivalry between the states with recruiting billboards placed along Kansas highways.

“We are in the throes of the short-term impacts of what’s occurring around the state,” said Joe Novak, who coordinates the University of Kansas master’s program for educational leadership.

This is a time when teachers are taking on more classes, larger classes, with fewer classroom aides and less school-funded classroom supplies and supports, Novak said.

It doesn’t surprise him that “the number of teachers is not dwindling, because a teacher is a hearty soul,” he said. “But eventually you run into the law of diminishing returns. There is going to be long-term impacts.

“I don’t think you’d ever see a rush for the borders, but you will get more teachers who say, ‘I don’t know how many more years I can do this.’ 

Big decisions

Stay or go? Former Kansas teacher Dave Kissack and his wife listed plenty of reasons for both before he departed Shawnee Mission a year ago for a teaching job in rural Guttenberg, Iowa.

“I would’ve stayed,” the high school science teacher said, because he loved his school and his teaching colleagues. He and his wife loved the Kansas City area.

They might well have stayed and weathered the biggest pressure pulling them away — concern over their finances and the costs of health insurance, which would be much improved for them in Iowa.

They likely would have stayed “if Kansas had been making choices to continue support of schools,” he said. “But what I saw coming didn’t look good.”

Stay or go?

History teacher Stephen Laird saw a window of time while waiting for other Kansas teachers in Shawnee Mission who were gathering this week to discuss that question with a reporter.

So he had student papers out on the table, and he was head-down, reading and scrawling out margin notes, working his way through his stack, wasting no free time.

“That’s the life,” the Shawnee Mission East teacher said.

Just a few years ago, he was teaching five classes in a semester, probably fewer than 25 students in each class, roughly 120 students in all. Now he’s got six classes, generally filled to 30 students each, meaning 180 papers to read and grade.

And less planning time during the day.

When autism behavior specialist Kelly Anderson from Hocker Grove Middle School prepared to teach organization skills, she paid for folders, dividers and binders out of her own pocket, she said.

She and Laird and the other teachers around the table with them are among those staying.

“I remember so many teachers who made an impact on my life,” Laird said. “It means so much to me. Throw whatever you want at me, I’m not leaving.”

Anderson knew ever since she did volunteer work as a teenager that she wanted to be a special-education teacher.

“I never thought about legislatures or salaries when I was 14,” she said, and she’s not going to let it stop her now. “Nothing changes my desire to change a life.”

“If we’re not here,” asked sixth-grade teacher Chris Robles of McAuliffe Elementary School, “who’s going to do it?”

Fewer applicants

The strain on schools and their quests to find and keep good teachers grows, the district-by-district breakdown shows, as recruiting stretches into the rural corners of the state.

When the Troy School District and its 340 students in northeast Kansas’ Doniphan County lost its industrial arts teacher, the district didn’t try to replace him.

“We needed to cut funds and payroll,” Superintendent Brian Harris said. “And we knew replacing him full time would be next to impossible.”

The unrest over school funding and legislative battles with teacher unions is increasing anxiety for isolated districts that already have difficulty recruiting in particular areas like math, science, special education and vocational and specialized courses.

“I only see it getting harder and harder,” Harris said.

Fewer teachers overall have been applying for jobs posted at Kansas Teaching Jobs, a state-run website that helps districts fill vacant positions, said Julie Wilson, the statewide recruitment and retention coordinator.

The number of annual applicants has fallen by 17 percent between 2012 and 2014.

The encouraging news, at least for now, is that the state public universities overall saw an increase in 2014 in students completing programs that lead to teacher certification.

Data from the Kansas Board of Regents showed program completion had risen by 21 percent between 2008 and 2011, then dropped by 11 percent between 2011 and 2013, before rising slightly a year ago.

Roughly 90 percent are from Kansas, and the same percentage are going to work in Kansas.

It helps that universities are becoming more “proactive” in recruiting teachers, said Debbie Mercer, dean of the College of Education at Kansas State University.

“Historically, many colleges of education felt that if a student wanted to be a teacher, they would come to us,” she said. But now “we are recruiting and advertising.”

Superintendents are grateful for that effort, and they are relying on the enthusiasm of every new wave of talent, like K-State graduate Kelsey Scheuerman, in her first year teaching music to middle school students in Lansing.

“I love my job,” said the native of “tiny” Deerfield in southwest Kansas. “I go home tired and sometimes frustrated, but it is not because of the government or politics. It’s because that’s how life is.”

More duties

Meet the new director of buildings and grounds at the Easton School District in Leavenworth County.

He’ll look familiar to anyone in Easton because he’s school Superintendent Chuck Coblentz, now doing double duty.

“Everyone is being asked to do more,” Coblentz said.

The fights going on between lawmakers and special interest groups pit those who believe these are reasonable, necessary efficiencies for sometimes wasteful schools and those who say education is suffering for it.

There are times when the words get personal, said Linda Sieck, the president of Shawnee Mission’s teachers’ union, when legislators have criticized teachers and that message “comes back like a wave that reaches all of the beach.”

But you’ll still find Westridge Middle School family and consumer sciences teacher Beth Wooldridge staying late on a Friday night — if she knows the school won’t be open on a Saturday — catching up on work, she said.

Whatever disaffection she might feel from outside, she said, “kids still need an education.”

Ruthe Goff, now in her 29th year teaching art at Hocker Grove Middle School, takes reassurance from the suggestion that Kansas teachers are not so quick to be leaving the state or their work.

The teachers she knows, and the teachers she imagines, are much like her — working jobs important to them, proud of their rigorous Kansas teaching licenses.

“This is where I want to teach,” she said. “No political environment is going to make me leave Kansas. This is home.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

Moving on

The number of teachers who left Kansas or left the profession has been increasing since 2011, according to state figures, though in much smaller numbers than what a Kansas State Department of Education report stated earlier this year.

2010-2011

2013-2014

Percentage increase

Left teaching

241

261

8.3

Moved out of state

202

240

18.8

Retired

783

872

11.4

Source: Kansas State Department of Education

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