The on-going teacher shortage afflicting schools all over the state has been a serious challenge for the Mountain View Whisman School District. The district's hiring staff has had to pull off a Herculean effort just to get a teacher in every classroom after losing more than 50 faculty members.
During the first month of school, the district has been employing long-term substitutes, retired teachers and teachers with intern credentials, as well as recruiting new staff from as far away as Santa Rosa.
"This has been the most difficult year for a long time," said Associate Superintendent Karen Robinson, who has headed efforts to hire new teachers. Other school district administrators have called this year one of the most challenging yet, Robinson said.
But the problem is two-fold for the Mountain View Whisman School District. The district has had to compete for a dwindling pool of job-seeking teachers, particularly special education teachers, while dealing with a worsening teacher retention problem.
Keeping teachers on staff has been an issue for the district, as it lost roughly 40 teachers each year in previous years. But this year the school district had to fill 55 teaching positions, amounting to roughly 1 in every 5 teachers in the district.
Jonathan Pharazyn, president of the Mountain View Educators Association, said it's been an on-going challenge for the district, which has had to hire 170 new teachers in the last four years. The high rate of turnover means the district has to sink money into retraining teachers, he said.
Pharazyn said many of the those leaving the district are veteran teachers who have been with the district for over 10 years. Add the chronic issue of teacher retention to the statewide teacher shortage, and the district has a serious problem.
"The district is in a very difficult situation, including external factors beyond the district's control," Pharazyn said.
Relatively low salaries remain the top issue for teachers quitting, Pharazyn said. The current teacher salaries, particularly on the low-end of the pay scale, make it challenging to live in an area where the cost of living is so high. He said the teachers who are quitting aren't necessarily dissatisfied with the district, but the salaries are just not enough to compensate for the high cost of local rent or the long commutes from more affordable communities.
Last year teachers received a 5 percent salary increase after a month of protests over what the teachers' union called a meager 3.25 percent "cost of living" bump proposed by former Superintendent Craig Goldman. This year teachers got another 4 percent boost to salaries, following relatively smooth negotiations with then-Interim Superintendent Kevin Skelly.
But the pay increases may not be the right route to fix the problem. Even though Skelly told the Voice in June that these substantial increases in salaries are not sustainable year-to-year, teacher retention worsened this year.
Pharazyn said the school board and the district need to figure out a "multifaceted game plan" to attract and keep teachers, and suggested the district start considering partnerships with the city of Mountain View and local tech giants like Google to find a solution. He said it could be something like more below market rate housing developments for teachers.
"That takes a will and a desire to make that happen, and so far I haven't seen that from the district leadership," Pharazyn said.
Positions almost filled
As of last week, the district only needed to hire a few more teachers to be fully staffed for the school year, which began on Aug. 17. While Robinson reported to the board at the Aug. 20 meeting that every classroom had a teacher, there was a number of substitutes holding down the fort.
At Huff Elementary, for example, the school kicked off the year with a long-term substitutes teaching a first-grade and fourth-grade class, the latter being an emergency fill after a teacher had quit unexpectedly within the first week of school.
Huff Principal Heidi Smith told the Voice that the first-grade position has since been filled, and a candidate for the fourth-grade position recently accepted the job offer. Despite the rough start, Smith said it hasn't been a problem for the school.
"I don't think it is a big issue other than Huff is not excluded from the Bay Area teacher shortage," Smith said in an email. "We have been lucky to find two great teachers after the year started."
Special education teachers, in particular, have been in short supply through the state, and the district had to hire 12 this year to fill all the vacancies -- the biggest turnover the district has had for special education, Robinson said.
In addition to hiring teachers with intern credentials to fully staff the special education department, Robinson said they have found a retired teacher willing to replace a long-term substitute currently teaching in a moderate-to-severe special education classroom. Once she is hired, Robinson said, the district will finally be done with its hiring spree.
"I am hoping next week is the week all the right people are in the right place," Robinson said.