Staff struggles: 48 teachers have left Panther Valley in 5 years; 20 more retired
Pennsylvania is in the midst of a teacher shortage. Last year, the Department of Education issued just 4,412 teaching certificates, down from 14,000 in 2009. Meanwhile the demand for teachers continues to increase due to teacher retirements and growing student populations.
With more competition for teachers, it is harder for districts with high rates of poverty and small tax bases, like Panther Valley School District, to attract and retain teachers.
The turnover rate at schools with a high rate of poverty is twice the rate of schools with a low poverty rate, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a national education think tank.
More than half of Panther Valley students live at or near the poverty line. The district ranks in the bottom 20 percent of school districts statewide when it comes to the amount of taxable real estate.
It also has an unusually high turnover among teachers. In 2019, seven teachers resigned.
Superintendent Dennis Kergick said that in his five years leading the district, 48 teachers have resigned, and another 20 retired.
“The kids here deserve as much of an education as other school districts can offer. Unfortunately, a lot is dictated by the economics of the area,” Kergick said.
The district’s starting salary for teachers is $37,000, which is the lowest in Carbon County, and on the lower end of districts statewide.
Districts, which are located right around the corner, can hire teachers at Panther Valley to do the same job for more pay. First-year teachers in surrounding districts can make 20 percent more than a teacher at Panther Valley.
Kergick said 19 of the 48 teachers who resigned in the last five years work at other school districts in the area.
Kergick, who started his career as a teacher, said he can understand why a teacher would leave to do the same job for more money.
“If they’re trying to raise a family, and pay their mortgage, and pay for their cars, and all the little things they do in and out — and this gives them an opportunity to build up their potential when they retire as well,” he said.
It’s no secret to teachers that they are paid less than other area districts. The discrepancy goes beyond just starting salary. The salary schedule is longer, meaning it takes more years for a Panther Valley teacher to reach their maximum income.
The teacher’s union has fought for higher salaries. They agreed to accept less because they understand the district doesn’t have the money to pay.
Steve Cholish, a negotiator with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the union tried to propose higher pay during their most recent negotiation. He said the district presented data which showed how much money they generated from local taxes, how much they received from the state, and how much they would receive from a tax increase.
“We were able to come to agreement on a salary number that while we weren’t happy with, moved our numbers forward without crippling the district at the same time,” Cholish said.
Kergick said raising taxes to increase teacher salaries is not an option in his mind. He believes that the state is not providing adequate funding for the district. An organization called “PA Schools work” estimated that the district should receive about $8.9 million more per year to in order to be on par with other districts around the state.
“We can’t raise our taxes. It would be devastating to a lot of families, especially our senior citizens,” Kergick said.
The district has fought to try to receive more funding per pupil from Harrisburg. They are part of a lawsuit aimed at getting the state to create a more equal system of funding for all students.
There are factors other than pay which lead teachers to leave lower-income districts.
Some teachers would prefer not to teach in a poor school district. Despite being located in a rural area, teachers say the issues faced are more what one would expect to find in poor inner-city districts. There is high poverty, a large number of transient students moving in and out of the district, and many students who do not have parental support for their education.
One former teacher said the makeup of the district changed and the lack of parental support made it difficult to work with students who needed help.
“I was not happy, I was not enjoying myself. I needed to look for something else, and that’s the main reason,” the teacher said.
Panther Valley students struggle in standardized testing. And Kergick said the turnover of teachers makes it harder for them to improve.
“I wish we could do more, I wish we could hang onto the dedicated professionals who work here. I wish we could do more for the students who attend the school district.”