Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining the impact of teacher shortages in local schools.
SULLIVAN — It’s summer. While families are enjoying vacations and warm weather, school district administrators are filling teaching positions — or trying to.
“It’s a teacher’s market,” said Janet Jordan, human resources manager for Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24). “There’s a shortage.”
This past spring, the district received 15 applications for a social studies teacher, a position that would have attracted about 40 candidates 10 or 15 years ago, she said.
At Ella Lewis Elementary School in Steuben, only three people applied for a position teaching math. The Peninsula School received only three applicants for an opening for an English teacher. Only 11 people applied for the principal’s position at Peninsula School.
“It’s a huge problem,” Jordan said.
Officials at the state level agree.
“There is a teacher shortage here in the state,” said Angel Loredo, the Maine Department of Education’s director of higher education and educator support services. “This is really part of a national shortage that exists in this country.”
Much of the problem stems from the 2008 economic downturn. Many of those interested in teaching decide, instead, to enter other professions where pay is better, Loredo said. As existing teachers retire, fewer new teachers are available to fill those positions.
Kelli Deveaux, Maine Department of Education spokeswoman, said another issue is that Maine’s population is the oldest in the nation, and this is affecting multiple industries.
“Education is really just another sector in the workforce shortage,” she said.
This leaves schools competing with other industries to attract and retain good workers.
Deveaux said the crunch is felt particularly hard by rural school districts, where smaller populations and fewer housing options can compound the problem.
Cherryfield Elementary School, which serves about 115 students in grades K-8, is feeling the pinch. The school, located in a rural section of Washington County, is run by the Cherryfield School Department, an independent district supported by the town that shares its name.
“Crisis would be the word at this point,” said Ralph Hirtle, the school’s special education teacher.
From Jan. 1 through July 19, Cherryfield had eight openings on a teaching staff of 15. As of July 19, the school had filled six of those positions, said Alice Tucker, the school’s administrative assistant.
Most teachers in Cherryfield have five years or less experience.
Katherine Mayo-Reese, who serves as Cherryfield’s principal and superintendent, said the school had one position that had been advertised for most of the previous school year. In the past, such an opening would have generated 15 to 20 qualified applicants.
A lack of affordable housing in the Cherryfield area is one barrier, Hirtle and Mayo-Reese said.
“I don’t know how to get more applicants, except offer more money,” Mayo-Reese said. “They deserve every penny of [their salaries] and more.”
Unfortunately, raising the school’s salary scale — which currently ranges from about $30,000 to $48,000 — is not economically feasible, officials said.
“[Poverty] is much more pronounced here in Washington County,” said Hirtle, who rakes blueberries over the summer for extra money.
Cherryfield is one of the poorest towns in Washington County, Mayo-Reese said. Raising teacher salaries would be a “hard sell” at the town’s budget meeting, Mayo-Reese said.
Like Mayo-Reese and Hirtle, Jordan wishes her district could pay more.
“It’s a fine line because we want to pay our teachers a million bucks but it’s taxpayer money and we have to be cognizant of that,” she said.
Still, pay is higher in RSU 24 than at Cherryfield. The RSU 24 salary scale ranges from $36,500 to $62,340.
Teachers say they must consider salary scales when job hunting. Eric Brooks, who is originally from Columbia, wanted to work close to home.
“I originally thought I would return to Washington County right after college, but the pay, benefits and opportunities for further education kept me away,” he said.
As a result, he lived in Sydney and worked as a teacher for eight years at Belgrade Central School, which is part of RSU 18. He finally decided that it was more important to be close to family and accepted a position as a third-grade teacher at Harrington Elementary School, which is a part of Maine School Administrative District 37.
“Immediately, I am taking a pay cut as I would make $42,382 in RSU 18. In MSAD 37, it will be $40,555,” he said.
His long-term earning potential also is affected. The RSU 18 salary scale tops out at $67,000, compared to $53,000 at MSAD 37, he said.
“In addition to the pay cut, there is no dental insurance provided, and there is no guarantee of planning times during the school day,” he said. “The argument that it costs more to live in central Maine is not accurate. I believe it costs more to live Downeast.”