The Anchorage School District is seeing high numbers of educators resigning and retiring — a trend that picked up after the COVID-19 pandemic upended life and education in Alaska, and is continuing this school year.
Anchorage education leaders say the exits are likely due to a mix of factors, including a lack of competitive retirement benefits, flat state funding and the exhausting toll teaching has taken on educators in recent years. And they come alongside continued staff shortages across the district.
For years, the number of educators with teaching certificates leaving the district annually hovered around 300, according to school district data. That includes classroom teachers, speech pathologists and librarians.
But by the end of the 2021-22 school year, 416 teachers out of around 3,000 had left their posts. And so far this year, at least 352 teachers are leaving, with more expected over the summer months. Plus, the share of teachers leaving is also jumping — from 8.2% of union members in 2017 to 13.5% last year.
In a nationally-representative survey, the Rand Corporation estimated that teacher turnover in the 2021-22 school year was about 14% of educators in urban districts, putting Anchorage schools on par with districts nationwide.
“There’s a lot of pressures on educators right now,” said Corey Aist, head of the Anchorage Education Association, the teachers union that represents district educators.
Teachers have lost autonomy, they face pressure from the community and families, and the pay scale and retirement system aren’t competitive with nearby states, Aist said. Meanwhile, teachers are facing larger class sizes and more behavioral issues among students, with increasingly fewer resources to deal with those problems, Aist said.
At the same time, culture wars across the United States and in Alaska are dominating discussions around education, and filling up school board public testimony minutes. And in Alaska, the per-student funds allocated by the state each year have remained largely flat for years, leaving districts statewide hamstrung by budgetary issues.
Also, Alaska’s university system produces far fewer teachers than there are vacancies, which means the district has to look Outside for teacher recruitment, according to Anchorage schools superintendent Jharrett Bryantt. But Alaska lacks a defined benefit pension plan for teachers — which would guarantee a monthly sum of money for teachers following their retirement.
“I think that we’re on track to have one of the most inexperienced and unstable teacher workforces in the country unless we take action,” Bryantt said. “And I think a big piece of that would be the way that Alaska chooses to approach pensions.”
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Exhaustion and pressure on teachers
While the district can bring in new teachers to district schools, some will quickly realize there is better pay and a pension option for teachers in nearby states like Oregon and Washington, Bryantt said.
“I do theorize that many individuals will come to Alaska and realize, as they get older in their careers, that they’d prefer to choose an option where they have a hope of an honorable retirement after their service,” he said.
While the Alaska Senate’s bipartisan majority cited pension reform for public employees as a top priority this year, it wasn’t brought to a vote, though they say they intend to push for it in the next legislative session.
At the same time, the Legislature passed a $680-per-student, a one-time boost to education funding, which is contingent on the governor’s approval. But since it’s a one-time boost, districts can’t be sure they will get the same funding next year. Many advocates say they need a permanent, inflation-proofed increase to maintain their workforce and keep up with rising costs.
“The teachers are still in the classrooms working with the students, and we really need community support and we need our Legislature to fund education to a level that keeps educators in Anchorage and Alaska,” Aist said. “The data speaks for itself.”
Anchorage School District teacher Marnie Hartill, who has been with the district since 2009 and currently teaches high school English virtually, is resigning at the end of the year. Amid continued flat funding, poor retirement options, and multiple involuntary reassignments, Hartill made the choice this year to leave and take a job in Washington state.
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There, Hartill said she will also have more affordable health care and lower housing costs, as well as the autonomy to build a career technical education program there. But withdrawing from the community is hard, she said. While she’s excited about the teaching opportunity in Washington, Hartill said she doesn’t feel happy about leaving and feels she’s letting people down.
“It heartbreaking to walk away from a community,” Hartill said. “It’s not normal for a teacher or counselor or special education teacher. We want to stay somewhere and retire there.”
Hartill, who has volunteered with the Anchorage Education Association, emphasized the need for adequate public education funding, and a better retirement system for teachers in order to better support district students.
“We’re not meeting the students’ needs when we’re flat-funded and underfunded,” she said. “And we’re not meeting the students’ needs when educators aren’t compensated with the cost of living and respect to their profession.”
Anchorage School District counselor Susan Miller is retiring at the end of the year, having been with the district for nearly three decades, spending the last 19 at Service High School. Miller said she’s feeling tired, amid continued changes and initiatives placed on educators, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hate to always bring up COVID and blame COVID, but those years really did cause a lot of burnout,” Miller said. “And so I’m just tired.”
‘Just time for me to get out’
Educator vacancies are not the only ones afflicting the district — it has struggled to hire bus drivers, student support staff and student nutrition staff.
Filling support staff positions at Creekside Park Elementary has been the most challenging employment issue this year, according to the school’s principal, David Christal. The school went without a secretary up until the past month, and they have four open special education positions, he said.
District director of human resources Marty Lang said teaching was already a challenging job prior to the pandemic. Then, COVID-19 made things even harder, and the district saw people who had the ability to resign or retire do so.
Lang also noted that in the mid-1990s, some teachers were offered an early retirement incentive, and many veteran teachers retired. The district in turn hired some 600 new teachers, and many of them are now able to retire with a defined benefit and health care.
Plus, the state’s flat funding issues “has had a demoralizing impact,” on educators. Uncertainty revs up every year over whether younger teachers will be displaced as the student-to-teacher ratio in the district changes and class sizes rise, according to Lang.
Losing a teacher can be costly, Lang said, as professional development time and experience leave with the educator. And if the position remains unfilled, it can impact the rest of the building, as students get dispersed across classrooms, or the class ends up needing a long-term substitute.
Among the teaching positions, special education is consistently the hardest area to fill, Lang said. He said the district knows they won’t be able to fill every position they offer, so they’re hiring retired special education teachers to cover some aspects of the job, and worked with companies to contract employees in areas with few applicants. The district is also subsidizing education for paraprofessionals in hopes of transitioning them into classroom teachers someday.
Miller, one of the many teachers leaving the district at the end of the school year, said she’ll likely spend retirement taking care of elderly parents and spending time with her seven grandchildren. But she’ll miss working with students, she said.
“I could work, you know, a few more years to make retirement a little bit more robust, but I think it’s just time for me to get out, and I can do other things if I need to,” Miller said.
Daily News reporter Iris Samuels contributed to this report.