While the Beaufort County School District has raised teachers’ pay by $3,000 in the past three years by phasing in a cost-of-living stipend, the district's teacher turnover rate has stubbornly stayed the same.
Still, district officials maintain that the stipend, known as a “locality supplement,” is a success, helping to offset the county’s high cost of living, which continues to rise unabated and presents a constant challenge to efforts to recruit and retain teachers.
“It’s a huge incentive,” district talent acquisition specialist Jill McAden said of the locality supplement aimed at recruiting teachers to work in Beaufort County. “Veteran teachers are appreciative and newbies are equally appreciative.”
The percentage of teachers leaving the district at the end of each year has remained around 12 percent since 2012-13, according to data from the South Carolina Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.
Starting in the 2015-16 school year, the school board embarked on a five-year plan to provide teachers with a cost-of-living supplement. All certified staff members received $1,000 in the first year, costing the district about $3 million.
This year, the third in the program, each teacher received $3,000. The 2018-19 school year will mark the fourth year of the program, and the district’s proposed budget includes a $4,000 supplement.
At the end of the five-year phase-in, the price tag for all full-time district staff receiving a $5,000 stipend will be $15 million.
At a board meeting earlier this week, Superintendent Jeff Moss described preliminary conversations with some Beaufort County Council members about potentially extending the supplement program another five years.
"What happens in year six?" Moss asked. "I think there's some interest in having a conversation around, 'OK, should the sixth year be another installment until we reach the level of what we believe is a competitive salary for our teachers not to have to have two or three jobs? '"
More than 250 certified staffers, including includes teachers, left their district jobs at the end of last school year. That's far fewer than many of the state's less affluent school districts, but still an obstacle that affects continuity in the classroom.
Sometimes classes can’t be offered because there are no teachers to staff them. For example, last school year, a May River High School engineering teacher position sat vacant for an entire semester, according to personnel ratification reports.
McAden and district chief administrative and human resources officer Alice Walton said they can’t pinpoint the cost of living or another specific reason as the primary factor for why teachers leave.
For some teachers, the low pay, which they knew of and accepted before they set foot in a classroom, wasn’t what drove them to the door. Those teachers cite a lack of administrative support, too much focus on testing and burnout among the reasons they left the profession.
But for many in this coastal county, it’s the low pay. Teachers, particularly those in the early years of their careers, struggle to afford housing, food and other necessities, creating a revolving door of teachers leaving and new ones arriving who need time to adjust to the learning curve.
Moss recently received an email from a Hilton Head Island school principal who informed him that a candidate currently residing in Florida had crunched the numbers and pulled out of a potential offer to teach on the island.
“The bottom line was less than what they’re currently making in Florida,” he told school board members at a work session last month.
Situations like the one Moss described are common for principals. Most of the first- and second-year teachers at Hilton Head Island High School have taken on second jobs in the food and beverage industry, according to Hilton Head Island High School Principal Amanda O’Nan.
While she understands the need for extra income, O’Nan said in March that she worries it could affect the quality of education for students. The extra jobs keep teachers out late, leaving little time to grade papers and create lesson plans, she said.
"We need top-notch teachers, and in order to get them here, we need to support affordable housing or they’re going to go elsewhere, and other schools are going to surpass us," O'Nan said.
From 2011 to 2016, average rental rates for all types of housing rose by about 49 percent on Hilton Head.
Not just Hilton Head
The issue isn’t isolated to Hilton Head. The high cost of living has become an across-the-board Beaufort County problem.
As reporting by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette last month shows, average rental rates for all types of housing from 2011 to 2016 rose by 31 percent in Bluffton and more than 12 percent across northern Beaufort County.
Bluffton High School guidance counselor Kelly Homan estimated at least 60 percent of Bluffton High’s staff members have second jobs. She said some coach, tend bar or work at the outlet mall on weekends to pick up extra cash.
Homan, who has worked at Bluffton High since 2004, has seen a cycle of young teachers begin their careers in Bluffton only to return home to states such as New York and Ohio where the pay is greater and family members live nearby.
“They get their experience here and pick that up and take it back home,” she said.
But retention isn’t exclusive to young teachers. Experienced employees higher up on the district’s salary schedule say what they’re making isn’t enough to support themselves and their families in Beaufort County.
Rob Sater grew up wanting to be a teacher and a coach. He did just that for nine years in the Upstate. There, where the cost of living is cheaper, he said could make it.
Sater and his wife, also a teacher, moved their family to Bluffton in 2016. He taught English and served as athletic director at H.E. McCracken Middle School. He also took a weekend job as a mixed martial arts instructor in Beaufort.
As a middle school athletic director, he said it was his responsibility to be at every event, taking time away from his family.
“There was a couple of times I could’ve pitched a tent and just stayed (at school) overnight,” he said of the long days that began at 7:30 and lasted late into the evening for athletic events.
Toward the end of last school year, he learned of a sales job at Gale Contractor Services, where he could set his own hours, receive a salary and also earn commission.
“If I was making more money, I wouldn’t have left education," he said. “But to continue for the amount of money I was making, it was no longer feasible, especially down here with the price of living.”
And just like that, the district lost a teacher with 10 years of experience.
Addressing the issue
Beaufort County School District is the 10th largest in student enrollment, but offers one of the highest starting teacher salaries statewide when the locality supplement is included.
At the beginning of this school year, for the first time in “many years,” all classroom positions were filled, said Walton, who runs the district’s human resources department.
That’s an improvement compared to the 2014-15 school year when roughly 40 teacher spots were unfilled on the first day of school, according to previous reporting by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
“I attribute that to an aggressive recruiting campaign and an aggressive hiring campaign,” Walton said. “Once we knew where the openings were going to be, we jumped right on getting (the applicants) to the principals.”
Throughout the school year, certified staff vacancies ranged from 20 to 42 openings, according to a review of personnel ratification reports. Walton said those numbers were “normal churn.”
Other steps Walton and McAden take to attract and retain quality educators:
- Attending recruiting fairs in two states, New York and Ohio, that have a surplus of teachers entering the field.
- Maintaining a database of teachers seeking roommates that participating teachers can use to connect with potential roommates on their own.
- Applying and receiving state grant funding available to instructors teaching in “critical needs” areas, such as science and special education.
- Changing the format of exit interviews to be face-to-face, which Walton says offers more insight on why teachers leave than the old format of a written survey.
Providing a two-year mentorship program for new educators, a year longer than what the S.C. Department of Education requires. A third year in the district’s induction program is optional based on a principal’s recommendation.
The district's salary schedule has stayed the same for teachers over the past two years, but the school board recently passed a two percent cost-of-living raise for all district employees in next year’s proposed budget.
“It just shocks me that the state is not trying to keep them up with the cost of living,” board member Evva Anderson said. “I really think this (raise) has been long overdue.”
SC teacher salaries
Average teacher pay in South Carolina — $48,769 — also falls below the southeastern average and Georgia's average teacher salary of $54,215.
In South Carolina, teachers are paid based on years of experience and education level. While most of that money comes from the state, wealthier districts, like the Beaufort County School District, pitch in local money to increase teacher salaries, leading to vastly different paychecks for teachers across the state. For example, a Greenville teacher with 29 years' experience and a doctorate earns the most of any S.C. teacher at $83,314 a year. Meanwhile, teachers with a bachelor's degree and no experience can earn as little as $30,113 a year. Here's what first-year S.C. teachers with no experience can expect to earn:
With a bachelor's degree
Highest starting salaries — $37,922 in Aiken, $36,124 in Dorchester 2 and $36,094 in Richland 2
Lowest starting salaries — $30,113 in Barnwell 19, Dillon 3 and Dillon 4 school districts
With a master's degree
Highest starting salaries — $43,651 in Aiken, $41,464 in Horry, and $41,154 in Richland 1
Lowest starting salaries — $34,480 in Barnwell 19, Dillon 3 and Dillon 4
With a doctorate
Highest starting salaries — $51,583 in Aiken, $47,285 in Beaufort and $47,028 in Greenville
Lowest starting salaries — $40,503 in Barnwell 19, Dillon 3 and Dillon 4
About this series
Sunday: S.C. teachers are quitting in record numbers. We look at why, and who will replace them.