Education

State, county consider need to improve teacher pay

Portia Vaughn Johnson, right, checks out a customer at T.J. Maxx on Wednesday in Beaufort. A seven-year teacher at Lady's Island Middle School, she works four shifts a week at the clothier to help make ends meet.
Portia Vaughn Johnson, right, checks out a customer at T.J. Maxx on Wednesday in Beaufort. A seven-year teacher at Lady's Island Middle School, she works four shifts a week at the clothier to help make ends meet. Staff photo

For the first time in her career, Lady's Island Middle School teacher Portia Johnson spent three weeks working in the classroom, and only the classroom.

Under pressure to juggle a host of responsibilities at school, she requested a few weeks off from her second job at T.J. Maxx in Beaufort.

That respite, however, ends next week.

Johnson, 31, will report to the Robert Smalls Parkway store by 5:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, then spend the weekend working another two full shifts. On Sunday, virtually every minute of her time is filled by church, lesson plans and her customer service job. Johnson, a sixth-grade social studies teacher, has been holding down at least two jobs since she entered the classroom seven years ago. She also sometimes works as a manager for her husband's photography business. As she takes on more at school -- from running fundraisers to field trips and clubs -- she said it's only gotten harder to live off her salary of about $36,000.

"I don't know how people with children do it," Johnson, 31, said. "A lot of people have no idea. If they could just walk in our shoes for a week, I think people would appreciate our profession a lot more."

A COMMON STRUGGLE

Johnson's struggle is not uncommon in South Carolina.

About 12.6 percent of the state's teachers held a job outside the school system in 2012, the most recent year available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics' Schools and Staffing Survey.

Nationally, about 1 in 5 teachers support themselves with a second job, according to a 2014 study by the Center for American Progress.

Last week, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman told lawmakers that her department is researching options for improving the outlook for young teachers and those retiring from the field, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

Spearman wants to boost salaries for all teachers, though it may be more feasible to begin by increasing starting pay or phasing in raises after 22 years of service, according to the AP.

Many districts already supplement the state's minimum salary for first-year teachers of $29,589.

A HIGH COST OF LIVING

The Beaufort County School District offers one of the highest starting salaries at $34,467. It also caps pay at 24 years rather than 22.

But the county's cost of living also rivals much of the state and the district does not provide adjustments as that cost rises each year.

The district hopes to see that change.

At the Beaufort County School Board's first budget meeting in January, superintendent Jeff Moss proposed a plan to give teachers an additional $5,000 to afford area housing, separate from their salaries. The district would phase in the $8 million plan over five years, beginning with a $1,000 adjustment the first year, Moss said.

"I think there's a lot of support on the board for doing something. ... The problem is we're only going to go as far as how good our teachers and administrators are," board member Bill Evans said. "If we can't continually attract better and better people, we're going to have trouble advancing as a school district."

While the board will begin discussing the proposal at its next budget meeting, it will not put it to a vote until it completes a study of the districts' pay to other salaried employees, including administrators, office staff, nurses and bookkeepers.

If the study finds those salaries are too low, the district may not be able to afford improving pay across the board, Evans said.

He and Moss agreed, though, that a cost-of-living adjustment must be a priority.

Just this summer, one to two dozen newly-hired teachers resigned before stepping foot in a classroom after they tried to move to the area and discovered it was too expensive, Evans said.

MAKING ENDS MEET

Some teachers said they don't even bother to apply here.

Ken McWilliams began looking for work in the county after leaving his job as an English and social studies teacher in Conway. Though he was drawn to the area's natural beauty, he quickly decided he could not afford a home for his wife and four children on the $43,600 salary the district pays for a teacher with a master's degree and five years experience.

On Monday, he accepted a teaching job in Florence, where the salary is lower but stretches further in terms of housing.

"Counties such as Beaufort are going to have a hard time attracting and keeping highly-qualified, experienced teachers," McWilliams said.

Others, such as first-year teacher Ashley Whitman, find ways to save money.

The Bluffton Elementary School gym teacher lives with her parents and supplements her income by babysitting one or two nights a week and dogsitting a few times a month.

The recent University of South Carolina graduate said Tuesday she doesn't expect to see salary improvements anytime soon. She plans to keep working odd jobs and spending her summers cleaning homes on Hilton Head Island until she is part of a two-income household.

"It's frustrating at some points just because I have a full-time job," Whitman said. "To make ends meet or have a nice life, you have to make money elsewhere."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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