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Janesville faces criticism on teachers who move on

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Frank Schultz
November 23, 2013

JANESVILLE—Teachers left the Janesville School District in unusually large numbers over the past year, reflecting low morale here and better pay elsewhere, the teachers union president said.

The school district's director of human resources rejects that analysis but said he needs better information about why teachers leave.

The difference of opinion plays out in the shadow of Act 10, which ended much of the power of public employee unions in Wisconsin.

School districts need to be aware that in the new reality, teachers have wider choices about where they work, said Sen. Tim Cullen, a former Janesville School Board member.

Pre-Act 10, teachers who switched districts got credit for no more than eight years experience, said Janesville Education Association President Dave Parr. That meant a pay cut for experienced teachers, who tended to stay put.

Now, "It's incredible. Our experienced teachers that are leaving, they're leaving for the same amount of money. Nobody is taking a cut in pay,” Parr said.

Some even get raises, and they're moving to districts that are giving annual pay raises, Parr said.

Cullen worries Janesville could be losing some of its best teachers because school officials aren't reacting to the new reality.

“Some school districts have figured out the post-Act 10 world, and it doesn't look to me like the Janesville school administration has,” Cullen said.

MORALE AND MONEY

Parr said he knows of more good teachers planning to leave this school year.

“I just don't sense any urgency to stop the exodus, and that's concerning,” Parr said.

Steve Sperry, the district's director of human resources, said he sees no unusual numbers of teachers leaving this year.

“We have people leave throughout an entire year. That's not uncommon for any district,” Sperry said.

And Sperry said reports he gets from principals have raised no red flags.

“Staff are happy with the principals, and they're satisfied,” Sperry said. “I think at this time of year, everyone is doing (state) testing, (so) of course there is some intensity at this time of year, but I don't know that our morale is any lower.”

Parr said Janesville teachers are getting no pay raises, while teachers in surrounding districts are.

Any raise for Janesville teachers depends on deadlocked contract negotiations, but hundreds of other district employees did get raises, a point that rankles Parr.

TEACHER EXODUS?

Parr counts 120 teachers who left the district during the 2012-13 school year or immediately after. Of those, 34 retired and 76 found other jobs, he said.

Parr said the district has not found teachers for many positions this year and had to hire people who are not licensed to teach in those specialties.

Sperry said the number of teachers with provisional licenses in hard-to-fill specialties this year is no different from other years.

Sperry also had different numbers for teachers who left over the past year: 64 teachers resigned and 33 retired, a total of 97

One hundred teachers would be about 13 percent of the district's 760 teachers.

Cullen said he fears the district could be losing the kind of teachers students remember for the rest of their lives. He notes the Parker High School math and English departments are full of new teachers this year.

“You don't get to be a great teacher the first day out of college,” Cullen said.

Cullen hears from teachers who see greener pastures elsewhere but a lot of negatives in Janesville. He notes the school board is working to reduce the teachers' early-retirement benefit.

Beloit cut back on its retirement benefit this year, but teachers got a 2.07 percent raise, said district spokeswoman Melissa Badger.

Badger said Beloit lost 38 teachers to resignations and 33 to retirements over the past year.

Cullen noted a larger proportion of Janesville's loss was in resignations, which suggests teachers believe—rightly or wrongly—they would find better jobs elsewhere.

“Right now I think Janesville's reputation is completely up in the air,” Cullen said.

WHY LEAVE?

Cullen also criticized the district's exit-interview process, which he said doesn't reveal the reasons teachers leave.

“They don't have a way of finding out and don't seem to want to know,” he said.

Sperry said an online survey took the place of exit interviews some years ago because employees asked for the convenience. Only 22 teachers took the survey in the past year.

Sperry said he is working to re-establish face-to-face interviews as an option for those leaving.

Sperry said principals talked to all 64 who resigned and found these top three reasons:

-- 20 moved closer to home.

-- 13 took a job in another school district.

-- 10 moved because of a spouse or significant other.

Sperry said he has not heard about wages or working conditions as reasons for leaving, but he acknowledged he doesn't know why teachers took jobs elsewhere.

That question will be important in the new exit interviews, Sperry said.

“Ultimately what we're trying to do is collect accurate information. Otherwise, we're just simply speculating,” he said.

“It matters to me that people are leaving and the reasons they are leaving, and that's the data I need to see in front of me,” Sperry said. “… We want to have the best teachers in this district.  We want them to stay here, and that's what we're going to continue to strive for.”

KEEPING THE BEST

Recruiting and retaining good teachers has long been seen as a key to the district's “Journey to Excellence” process.

Another part of the process: techniques in which managers check in with employees to ask how they're doing. Praise, thank-you notes and regular pronouncements about good things happening in the district are also a part of the culture officials have tried to install.

Listening sessions also are used, as with the recent discussions on changing the early-retirement benefit, although Parr questions whether teachers are truly listened to.

The district apparently has not tracked whether teachers who left were good teachers.

Administrators in the district rate teachers as high, medium or low performers, but Sperry said he did not know how many of those who left last year were high performers.

The high-medium-low ratings were not intended for this purpose, Sperry said, but the theory officials have espoused is that low performers will eventually resolve to improve themselves or leave.

NEGOTIATIONS

The controversy comes at a time that the union and school board remain deadlocked in contract negotiations. The board initially offered no pay increase this year and later offered 0.75 percent.

The union's opening request was a 2.07 percent increase—the maximum allowed this year under Act 10, which restricts teacher pay increases to inflation.

The teachers later offered 1 percent per cell on the old salary schedule. That would have worked out to less than 2.07 percent, Parr said.

Until the contract is resolved, Janesville teachers are being paid at the same levels as under the old contract, Sperry said.

The district will give employees a bonus this school year because of performance on the recent state report cards, but Parr notes other employee groups got better raises than what the district is offering teachers.

“Clearly, they don't value what we do here. I don't see how else you can interpret that,” Parr said.

SOLUTIONS

“We have to let people know we're a good place to work and we're thinking about them because right now a lot of people believe that they're just here to punish us, and that's why they offered us less money than they offered everyone else,” Parr said.

Teachers are not allowed to talk to the press without permission, but a few said informally that it's not so much about the money; it's more about being appreciated and the workload as the district drives teachers to focus on test-score improvement strategies.

The day after The Gazette's first interview with Sperry for this article, he appeared as a guest on the superintendent's blog, encouraging teachers to feel proud of their work in the face of critics.

“Each of us needs to stand tall with the naysayers from within our own organization and demonstrate a high degree of trust, character and professionalism,” Sperry wrote. “…Also, we all need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and stop feeling sorry for the challenges in education. Stop finding reasons to be divided; each person in the School District of Janesville should be proud of the role you serve in this organization.

"The School District of Janesville will be viewed in a more positive manner when we believe in what we are doing and what we are accomplishing.”



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