Jennifer Walter cried when she packed up her classroom at Oakville Middle School to leave for a neighboring district, a decision she said was difficult, but necessary.
“I was losing my spark as a teacher,” said Walter, 33, who taught science. “I don’t want to lose that enthusiasm, and so I made the hard decision to leave.”
Walking out the door along with Walter this year are an unusually high number of teachers from the Mehlville School District, where budget cuts, unfilled teaching positions and an uncertain future have led some to leave.
The district is losing nearly 80 teachers, most of whom resigned, nearly doubling the turnover rate from a typical year.
It’s a costly problem.
When Walter’s school lost a social studies teacher, administrators added a class in that subject to her schedule. That meant cutting a section of science, and dividing the students up into others, bumping up the class size.
“Every year, our poor principals have to move the teachers around like chess pieces because they tend to not replace people,” she said. “All the science classes would just inflate a little bit. It does have a domino effect. “
And when the working conditions push teachers out, students aren’t the only ones paying the price.
Researchers figure teacher attrition costs the nation’s school districts about $2.2 billion each year. Costs include recruiting, hiring, training and developing new staff. Mehlville officials say it’s hard to put a price tag on those expenses for each teacher who must be replaced.
Research suggests those costs are higher for urban schools, which can be hard to staff.
In schools across the country, teachers leave their jobs for reasons that include problems with administration, poor student discipline, low salaries or a lack of teacher influence in decisions. Turnover is especially high among new teachers, with 40 to 50 percent leaving the profession after five years, according to research.
“It’s not cheap at all,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “Working conditions are the big driver. Some people decide it’s just not worth it for them to continue.”
Each year, Mehlville has a certain amount of teacher turnover based on retirements and family moves. And the district also had teachers who have left to take better-paying jobs.
But this year, the numbers have skyrocketed.
Typically, there are 15 to 20 retirements a year, and then another 20 or so who resign for other reasons. After the 2014-15 school year, 20 teachers retired — and 57 resigned, more than double the usual amount. Mehlville has about 740 teachers, putting its turnover near 11 percent. In most years, it’s about 6 percent.
Nearby in Lindbergh schools, the rate was about 5 percent, with most leaving for retirement.
With turmoil in its schools due to a state takeover and student transfer law, the Normandy school system had a turnover of about 16 percent this year.
Not all turnover is bad, said Ingersoll, who has researched teacher turnover. If the loss is bad teachers who aren’t motivated, for example, it can be a good thing for schools, he said.
But if good teachers are leaving, it’s very disruptive to a school and harmful to the morale of the remaining staff, Ingersoll said.
With about $4 million in operating cuts, Mehlville still has a projected deficit of about $2.5 million this school year. That has forced the district to save money by not replacing 23 teachers who have retired or resigned. For the teachers who stay, salaries have been frozen.
Mehlville School Board President Venki Palamand said the district likely will be forced to ask voters for a tax increase in November because of its financial outlook.
The fiscally conservative community has not approved a property-tax rate increase in 29 years.
Palamand said awarding an average of 3.5 percent raises for 2014-15 added to the district’s deficit spending. Part of the problem, he said, is that if other districts increase teacher salaries, it gives the neighboring ones new benchmarks.
“There’s a real cost imposed on the Mehlville School District when other districts continue to push their salaries higher,” he said.
“Our teachers look to leave and go to those places. And we end up replacing teachers with those with less experience.”
Walter is headed to Fox School District, where she said she will make a higher salary in the long run and also has better incentives to continue her education for a doctorate.
She said there are still amazing teachers in Mehlville schools, and she worries about the future of them and their students with such a grim financial outlook.
“They deserve better,” she said.