Turnover impacting area's public schools

·5 min read

Jul. 18—Several local public school systems have felt the statewide trend of certified personnel leaving at a higher than normal rate, and one Morgan County school has had nearly 30% turnover in what the principal called "a perfect storm."

Brewer High Principal Kevin Serrett said "about 17 of 60 (28.3%) certified personnel" either retired, resigned or contracts were not renewed during the past year. He said he isn't sure the COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in the departing workers.

"We'll have 16 or 17 new faces when school begins in August," he said. "It was not one thing, just a perfect storm that caused a big hole. We've (hired) quality people in those places, people who can lead and guide our students."

He said about five or six football coaches left when head coach Geoff Walters departed for Fultondale High School. The Brewer Patriots were 0-10 last season as was Fultondale. Matt Plunkett left Locust Fork in Blount County to become the new head coach at Brewer in eastern Morgan County. He also will teach physical education.

"We had four or five retirements, three or four took other jobs in the central office or a principal position elsewhere," Serrett said. "You want them to advance. I don't believe (the departures) were necessarily COVID-related."

He said another three or four workers "weren't good fits" and were let go.

Serrett, who is going into his second year as Brewer principal, said math and science positions are hard to fill.

According to an Associated Press report, the Teacher Retirement System of Alabama reported 3,515 teachers and principals retired during the 2020-21 school year. The system reported that was the most since the 2010-11 year when nearly 4,100 retired after changes were made to the benefits. The report cited stress from pandemic-related changes as a major contributing factor to the turnover.

Morgan County Schools spokesperson Jeremy Childers said the district has 150 total new hires, with 17 being new positions, starting this August. He said of the district's 569 certified employees, 31 retired and 31 resigned.

"We've never seen this kind of turnover," Childers said. "We usually have about 50 leave during the summer."

He said the spike was a combination of things and didn't rule out the pandemic.

"Our workforce is getting older, and let's face it, the pandemic is nobody's friend," Childers said. "But now all of our positions are filled."

Lawrence County Superintendent Jon Bret Smith said he saw his retirement numbers inch up from 28 in 2019-20 to 30 this past year.

"We had 22 retire since Christmas," he said.

He feels COVID had an impact in the retirements.

"People are retiring because of health concerns and stress because teaching during COVID has been very difficult. But it is hard to determine how many are COVID-related," he said.

But for Hartselle and Decatur school leaders the numbers of retirements and resignations were not alarming.

In Hartselle, Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said her district's retirement numbers were in line with past numbers. She said her system had a dozen retirements this past school year and that was in line with the 10-15 it normally has.

Fewer applicants

Local administrators said filling vacancies has become a bigger task than in previous years.

Decatur City Schools Superintendent Michael Douglas said the pool of applicants is shallow.

"When you look at our numbers, we probably lost 75 of 1,100 employees, some retired, some left our district to go to other districts. Nothing out of the ordinary of what we've had in a normal year," he said. "But we are seeing that the applicant pool is substantially lower than it has ever been."

He said in the recent past his district might have 60 applicants for an elementary education position. "Now we're lucky to have 10," he said. "By the time the principal finishes interviewing, some of those 10 have accepted (jobs elsewhere). When you have a statewide mass departure, and teacher ed programs are only putting out half of what just retired, it's a struggle."

Douglas said school systems statewide will have to become creative in filling the certified positions. He said a special education teacher is the toughest position to fill.

"We'll get some people who have a degree but don't have teacher certification that we will be able to put on emergency certificate to hire them until they get that certification. You will see more districts have to do that just because people aren't available," he said.

He said those hires will have two years to become certified. Most will take four courses and take the Praxis. "If you have a degree and want to teach, we'll get you certified," Douglas said. "You will see more of that statewide." In the 2019-2020 school year, nearly every district in the state was employing teachers on emergency certifications, according to the Alabama State Department of Education.

Smith agreed, saying the federal money coming to school systems to assist in getting the students learning again after a COVID-disrupted 2020 is putting a tighter squeeze on the available workforce.

"Now jobs are hard to fill because most systems are hiring more people because of federal funds related to COVID." Smith said. "There's definitely a teacher shortage."

The rural Lawrence County school board is teaming with area colleges and universities to offer part-time positions for college students to work in its schools. "That's a way to keep our younger people in Lawrence County, a place where they grew up," said District 1 board member Christine Garner.

mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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