At the end of the school year, about 150 teachers will walk away from their jobs with the Beaufort County School District. That’s about one in every 10 of the district’s teaching force.
That is in addition to about 55 teachers who already left during the year, and the roughly 40 teacher spots that were unfilled at the beginning of the school year.
At 12 percent, Beaufort County schools’ turnover rate for teachers is among the highest in the state and continues to grow almost every year.
The reason: the area’s high cost of living. It’s more expensive to live in the area than in any other S.C. county, according to data from the S.C. Department of Commerce.
Never miss a local story.
Teachers, particularly those in the early years of their careers, struggle to afford housing, food and other necessities and often decide to leave the area. That creates a revolving door of teachers leaving and new ones arriving that hurts students, say district leaders.
Substitute teachers instruct classes for months on end in some cases. And more students must be packed into each class. Even adding just two or three students to a class can make it significantly more difficult for teachers to provide individualized instruction to students, say educators.
Sometimes, classes can’t be offered at all. This year at Whale Branch Middle School, for example, a Spanish teacher quit. The district couldn’t find a replacement so students couldn’t take the course.
District leaders say they have a solution: Pay teachers more.
“We continually are having to get new teachers used to our environment and curriculum,” said district superintendent Jeff Moss. “We all know we cannot build success on that type of foundation.”
For the teachers who do stick around, it often means working several other jobs.
‘PAY THEM WHAT THEY ARE WORTH’
Hilton Head Island Elementary School principal Jill McAden breathed a heavy sigh of relief as she walked into Corner Perk Cafe in Bluffton on a recent weekend afternoon.
Behind the counter, one of her school’s beloved first-grade teachers, Katelyn Roberts, was serving coffee and sandwiches to customers.
“I assumed it meant she had quit her (part-time job) as a bartender and found this new one,” McAden said. Working in a cafe on weekend afternoons seemed less taxing than mixing drinks and closing down a bar at 4 a.m., then mustering the energy to teach a room full of first-graders all day, McAden thought.
Only that wasn’t the case.
“This is not a different job,” explained Roberts, who also works four days each week as a tutor after school. “This is another one.”
After four years in the district, Roberts has decided she’s had enough of working four jobs and is leaving the classroom. She’s heading back to Ohio where the cost of living is less and she can put all of her focus on being a classroom teacher.
“When I think of (Beaufort County) teacher salaries, it means four jobs just to make ends meet,” Roberts said. “It means no rest. It means constant stress. And it means not being able to devote the time and energy to the classroom that I want.”
School board members are fretting about the future as promising young teacher like Roberts walk away.
“We have lost a lot of good teachers from our schools, which hurts students,” said longtime school board member Earl Campbell during the board’s discussions of attracting and retaining teachers. “We should pay them what they are worth and what we need to keep them here.”
That is exactly what the district is attempting to do, asking for more public dollars to reach the goal.
In its budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, the district has incorporated the first part of a five-year plan to provide teachers with a cost of living supplement.
All staff members will receive $1,000 in the first year, costing the district about $3 million. At the end of the phase-in, the price tag will grow to $15 million with all staff members receiving an extra $5,000 each year. That is $15 million every year that county taxpayers must supply.
While the Beaufort County Council is likely to approve the district’s budget that includes the first $1,000 increase in coming weeks, it is the future increases that could be cost prohibitive.
But district officials and board members say it’s a priority for them. And it should be for county taxpayers, too.
“If we are to keep raising the bar then we are going to need to keep getting better teachers and that is going to take looking at salaries and it is going to cost money,” school board chairman Bill Evans said.
‘IT’S NEAR IMPOSSIBLE’
When comparing Beaufort County to other areas of the state, the district’s salaries don’t look sparse.
The district offers one of the highest starting salaries at $34,467 and has the 16th highest average teacher salary — $50,034 — of 82 schools districts across the state, according to data from the state Department of Education.
“But you have to look at the whole picture,” Evans said. “You can’t just say, ‘What’s our salary and is it competitive?’ We have to look at what it costs to live and work in Beaufort County.”
That’s where the problem arises.
When adjusted for cost of living, the district’s generous salaries become the lowest. The $50,000 salary only goes as far as $40,480 in Beaufort County, according to an analysis by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
Only three other districts — Charleston, Florence 4 and Lexington 4 — have average salaries below $50,000 when adjusted.
Some of the highest salaries adjusted for the costs of living are in Chester, Spartanburg and Richland counties at around $59,000 — adding almost $10,000 in value from their actual average salaries.
Beaufort County’s average teacher salary would spend like $53,740 in Horry County, $57,400 in Berkeley County and $60,000 in Orangeburg County.
Mike Lorenz, a social studies and robotics teacher at Hilton Head Island High School, said he and his family came down from Wisconsin for the weather.
But he hasn’t experienced island living since he started in the district this past year.
More than half of Lorenz’s monthly paycheck goes to pay for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment for himself, his stay-at-home wife and three children — a 6-year-old, 4-year-old and a newborn. Lorenz also coaches football, basketball and weightlifting, but might have to give those up soon so he can go home and watch the kids while his wife picks up some work, he said.
Being a teacher in Beaufort County, while worth it, means the family never eats out, only buys sale items and is constantly clipping coupons, Lorenz said.
“When you are trying to balance a checkbook, you think about it, about leaving,” Lorenz said. “But it’s hard to back away when you love what you are doing so much.”
It’s even harder for those new to the field.
The district’s average starting salary amounts to only about $27,800 when cost of living is factored in — less than the state’s minimum first-year teacher salary of $29,589.
The only way Michele Quigley, a fourth-grade teacher at Hilton Head Elementary, could teach in the district was to live with her parents for her first two years as a teacher.
Now in her fifth year of teaching, Quigley is out of her parents’ place but still needs a roommate, who also happens to be a teacher. She also works two other jobs: one at the Harbour Town Bakery and Cafe, and the other as a tutor for students with medical conditions that prevent them from coming to school.
Quigley said “what if” thoughts still occasionally cross her mind, thinking back to when she turned her back on medical school in college.
“I was fighting between my head and my heart, and it was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but I went into education,” she said. “My mom was a teacher here so I was aware going into the field that the salary and cost of living were an issue. But I was not aware it was this much of an issue.”
TEACH OR PAY THE BILLS?
The high cost of living reverberates after the school bell signals the end of the school day.
Many teachers must hurry off to other jobs and cannot participate in after-school clubs and field trips for which they are not paid.
“Their day technically ends when the bell rings. But we and students need them beyond those hours,” said Amanda O’Nan, principal of Hilton Head Island High School. “What happens is that teachers have to leave parent-teacher conferences early or they can’t come to a faculty meeting because of their second job or they can’t attend open house with parents and students because they can’t change their shifts.”
Students at O’Nan’s school have asked that a specific teacher lead a political club after the first sponsor could no longer live here and left. But the hours of his second job prevented him, O’Nan said. The school still has no such club.
They also don’t have as much time to plan their lessons, grade papers or prepare materials for class.
These teachers are simply exhausted.
After running from one job to the other for months, Roberts could tell she was feeling overly tired and needed to visit her doctor.
But she hadn’t met her insurance deductible and couldn’t afford to go. Finally, after months of poor health, she broke down and called her mother, asking for money.
Her doctor’s visit revealed she had mono, a common illness that leaves people tired and weak for months.
Teachers like Quigley say her frenzied work schedule means she often doesn’t have as much enthusiasm or energy to be as engaged with her students as she would like.
“There are days I’m not at a 110 percent or even 100 percent, and it really upsets me because I expect that of my students so I expect that of myself,” she said. “I know Beaufort County has already said good-bye to some of its best, and it’s scary to think who will fill their shoes, or if anyone will fill them.”
‘EVERY PENNY COUNTS’
O’Nan as well as other principals and veteran teachers offer their spare bedrooms as a short-term housing solution for teachers searching for affordable housing. One teacher lived with O’Nan’s mother in Shipyard Plantation for a year.
Additionally, McAden said district principals try to ensure teachers have all the classroom supplies they need and are not spending their own money.
Despite their efforts, it’s not enough.
So the idea for a locality supplement was introduced.
For teachers living on a starting salary, an extra $5,000 would be a whopping 15 percent increase.
“It would make such a difference — every penny counts,” Quigley said. “When I first heard about it, I was too afraid to believe it. I thought it was too good to be true.”
The school board has incorporated it into the district’s budget. It is up for final approval before the Beaufort County Council in a few weeks.
But with the supplement’s growing cost as it is phased in and the county facing its first tax increase in years — despite recent cuts to nearly 600 county employees retirement benefits — the question is should this be a priority for county taxpayers?
Some might say no.
Many county residents are earning far less than teachers, working year-round jobs. And no one is offering them any help. The average per capita personal income in Beaufort County has hovered around $33,000 in the last several years since the recession, according to the county’s financial report.
But board chairman Evans argues that teachers are doing some of the most important work that exists in the county. And if they aren’t paid enough, the district could get some bad apples in the classroom.
“If council and the community are really serious about economic development and constantly say education is a huge part of that … then we need to be able to say we are putting the best possible teachers in front of our students,” he said.
What is the Beaufort County School District proposing?
A locality supplement that all staff members, including teachers, would receive solely because they work in the county with the state’s highest cost of living. The supplement would not be tied to the individual’s performance and is independent of the state-mandated step increases in teacher pay.
Who will get the supplement?
All staff members will get the supplement, according to the school district’s budget. That includes teachers, administrators and classified staff such as secretaries, bookkeepers, etc. Some school board members said that staff members earning above a certain amount should not receive the supplement, but the board ultimately voted to give it to all staff.
How will it be phased in?
The district plans to phase in the supplement over five years, starting with $1,000 in the first year. Another $1,000 will be added each year for four years until all staff members receive $5,000 every year. In coming weeks, Beaufort County Council is expected to approve the district’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That means staff members will get an extra $1,000 during the upcoming school year.
How much will this cost?
In the first year, the supplement will cost the district about $3 million and will not result in a tax increase on county residents. Every year, the cost of providing the supplement will increase by roughly $3 million until taxpayers are paying nearly $15 million extra annually. It remains to be seen if the supplements will result in tax increases in future years.
Will it be part of the salary?
No. The supplement will be a bonus and will not be added to or counted as part of an employee’s base salary. This means that staff members’ insurance and retirement will not be affected by the supplement. Keeping it out of the salary also gives the district more flexibility. It can be put on hold or removed more easily should future funding not be available.
How did the district arrive at this number?
The district considered creating a locality supplement that was a percentage of an employee’s salary, but felt that the new teachers who earn the least — and need financial help the most — would get the least amount. And so the district chose to implement a flat rate supplement. Superintendent Jeff Moss determined that an apartment in Beaufort County costs about $400 more than a similar apartment elsewhere in the state. After multiplying that amount by 12, for each month, Moss rounded up to $5,000, to account for some other costs such as utilities and groceries.
Do pay supplements improve student performance?
While there is little evidence that shows higher teacher salaries are directly linked to improved student performance, a project in New York — funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — shows that test scores were higher at a school where teachers were paid more than $100,000. And in South Carolina, the districts with higher salaries have lower turnover rates. But it’s unclear if higher salaries cause lower turnover rates. Also, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that higher teacher pay is a key part of enhancing teacher quality, alleviating teacher shortages and redressing the unequal distribution of effective teachers.
By Sarah Bowman