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Teacher turnover costs Alaska about $20 million a year, study says

Teacher turnover costs Alaska an average of $20 million a year or nearly $20,500 each time a district loses a teacher and hires a replacement, according to a recent study from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The costs include money and time spent on job fairs, advertising and training for new hires. They also include time spent on exit interviews for departing teachers and, in some cases, preparing teacher housing in some rural communities, which may include painting walls or changing locks, said the study published last month by the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research at UAA.

Diane Hirshberg, director of the research center, said the study is the first to systematically calculate the cost of teacher turnover in Alaska, a state long vexed by a constant churn of teachers in its remote and rural schools.

She said researchers sought to determine how much money districts could free up if they retained teachers. They had heard high costs attributed to turnover in the past, but she said the total was still surprising.

"Imagine, if we lowered the turnover rate by 50 percent in rural Alaska — suddenly we're having millions of dollars to invest in these educators and in our classroom rather than in trying to hire," she said.

This school year, one in every 10 teachers across Alaska's 507 public schools was a new hire, according to the state Department of Education and Early Development. The annual churn of teachers hits rural Alaska particularly hard, driving the state's average turnover rate skyward.

According to the study, teacher turnover in rural Alaska school districts averaged 20 percent between 2004 and 2014. About a dozen of those districts lost 30 percent of their teaching staff each year.

The UAA study does not break down the costs of teacher turnover by district.

Dayna DeFeo, lead author on the study, said the data was compiled from 37 Alaska districts that agreed to participate out of a total of 54 school districts in Alaska. The districts ranged from large, urban and on the road system like Anchorage and the Mat-Su district, to tiny, remote and only reachable by airplane.

DeFeo said researchers interviewed superintendents and school administrators to learn about their processes when a teacher leaves. They then dug into the financial data and the time spent on each task to calculate the statewide average.

The study took about 18 months, she said, and was funded by the University of Alaska Foundation, a private nonprofit that solicits, manages and invests donations to benefit UA. All three of the university system's main campuses train teachers and school administrators. Each year, Alaska school districts hire about 1,000 teachers, while Alaska's teacher preparation programs graduate only around 200, according to the study.

Hirshberg cautioned that the average costs calculated in the study were "extremely conservative," as they did not account for costs of lost learning or lost productivity.

Connie Newman, superintendent at the Iditarod Area School District, said in an interview Thursday that the study's findings did not shock her. It's expensive to recruit new teachers.

The Iditarod district's schools in Interior Alaska villages have enrollments ranging from about 14 to 100, according to state data. Next school year, only 12 of the district's 20 teachers will return, Newman said. A few will retire and some found better-paying jobs on the road system.

"It's very expensive to try and replace them," Newman said. "We had to send a team to Anchorage to recruit and it's pretty competitive. Our little district doesn't have quite the same resources."

Plus, she said, round-trip plane tickets to Anchorage can cost as much as $1,000. The district will only replace six of the eight outgoing teachers due to budget constraints. The recruiting team found three replacements at the Anchorage job fair, she said, "which was a blessing."

Newman said to retain teachers she tries to communicate to them "how important they are to our program; that they are the most valuable asset we have." She said she also tries to show her support by offering them professional development opportunities and flexibility in time off.

Still, she has hired teachers from other states who want to leave rural Alaska almost as soon as they land, even though recruiters try to prepare them for life in villages, she said.

"I have hired folks from out of the state and they have stayed maybe one or two weeks and left," she said. "I think, probably, they did not understand the concept of Bush living."

Studies on teacher turnover in Alaska show that teachers educated in state stay on the job longer. The University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen has made preparing more teachers one of his top priorities.

DeFeo said she hoped the turnover costs help inform decisions about teacher recruitment and retention, underscoring the importance of keeping good teachers. Studies say that districts that invest the most in teacher training, mentoring and support have lower rates.

"It allows you to think about these things as investments when they're compared to really significant costs to losing teachers," she said.

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