The Sitka School District replaced 10 teachers this year, at a cost of over $200,000 according to superintendent Mary Wegner. While some turnover is unavoidable, Wegner wants to prioritize teacher retention to save money. (KCAW file photo)

Of all the expenses incurred in running Alaska’s public schools, one stands out as being especially hard to bear: the cost of teacher turnover.

Sitka’s school superintendent recently told the local chamber of commerce (12-19-17) that holding on to good teachers is an important way to save money.

Downloadable audio.

Sitka Schools superintendent Mary Wegner says that Alaska’s 54 school districts hired an average of 985 teachers a year over the last five years — at a cost of over $20,000 per hire.

This has nothing to do with salaries. According to a recent study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, recruiting good teachers simply takes cash.

“So what they’re defining as the cost of teacher turnover is separation, when a teacher leaves. The cost to a district when a teacher leaves, when they recruit new teachers, the hiring process. Also, all the training that’s needed. Even though teachers come with teacher certification, I graduated with my teaching degree in 1985, so a lot has happened in education in that time, and I’ve kept up to speed with my education over the years. But even if you’re five years out from getting your teaching degree, there’s a lot of need for training and best practices and what’s happening, and what we know about good learning and what that looks like in districts today.”

Wegner’s presentation was designed to inform Sitka’s business leaders about the financial pressures on the school district — which has no taxation authority of its own and must rely exclusively on local and state contributions for funding.

She noted that the ISER study only covered the expense of teacher turnover, and not its effects.

“None of this is addressing the impact that it has on student learning. When all of your resources are going to collectively hiring 985 teachers every year in the state. So it’s a huge impact to school districts.”

Wegner reported that she replaced 10 teachers in the Sitka School District this year, at a cost of over $200,000.

While some of that expense was unavoidable, she believes schools can save money through retention.

“Turnover’s going to happen. People retire. People move. People have life events that change their desire to work in any one community, and we can’t control that. What we can control as a district is how we treat teachers, how do we provide a place for them that feeds their professional growth, that allows them to have a rich life that they can count on, buy a home. They can feel comfortable in knowing that their job is secure as long as their professional work is up to snuff. But it’s not something that they have to worry about getting a pink slip every year. The retention is the key.”

Although Sitka is fully staffed, Wegner said the rest of the state is experiencing a teacher shortage. She said that as of mid-year, there were 153 classrooms in Alaska without teachers.