Wheaton raises teacher pay in hopes of slowing turnover

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

District seeing decreasing student enrollment, teacher turnover

Barry County is replete with small communities and rural school districts, and the Wheaton school district has been getting smaller.

Teacher turnover, salary schedules and decreasing student enrollment were addressed by the district's school board.

According to Lance Massey, superintendent, the board voted to add a $500 increase to their salary base for teachers certified in education.

"That makes our base salary $29,000 for certified," Massey said. "Non-certified staff, which are on an hourly wage, had a two-percent pay increase."

The reason for the increase, Massey said, was to stay competitive and try to recruit and keep good teachers.

"It puts us closer in line with some of the schools our size," he said, comparing to the nearby district of Exeter.

Massey, who is beginning his 11th year as superintendent for Wheaton, has noticed declining enrollments for some time, and said he believes it is part and parcel of a being a small town school district.

"We've had contain declining enrollments for last 10 years," he said. "We've went from about 460 kids K-12 and are setting at about 390 right now. So, with a district our size losing 75 kids over 10 years, the state pays you based on number of enrollments and those numbers continue to hurt small schools.

"I think there's not a small school board that hasn't talked about the issue."

One of the reasons to blame for declining enrollment, Massey believes, are outside factors that have nothing to do with the school district itself.

"It's the lack of industry within the community," Massey said. "A big number of our families work in the Monett and Cassville areas. We see a lot of our folks moving to areas closer to where they're working. Most of our families don't relocate to places a long distance away. And with fuel prices, if you don't own your home in Wheaton and are renting, it makes more sense for families to live closer to where they work.

"And, I think it's a trend in many of the extremely rural communities, and those are trends happening all over the state."

Massey said the district has brought 1:1 technology throughout the district and aims to be progressive in the technology area. Massey said some of the district's students also recently returned from competing in a National History Day competition in Washington, D.C.

The district also recently hired two new principals, Naomi Austin for preschool through sixth grade, and Traci Mitchell for grades 7-12. The previous principals had been with the district for a combined total of 14 years.

"We're excited to have them on board with us and excited about a productive school year," Massey said. "They're very progressive-thinking and will challenge our students to make sure they are college and career-ready.

"We have for the most part pretty good reviews from our patrons about our school district so we get a lot of folks who enjoy the small school of Wheaton."

As for addressing the enrollment issue, Massey said there's not a lot that can be done.

"I don't know there's anything a school can do to affect enrollment numbers," he said. "I think trying to provide the best possible education for our children is our highest priority. And, I think if we continue those things, as either industry moves into the community or something of that nature, we might see a change in enrollment shifts. But, for the most part I think there's probably not a lot a small school can do."

Massey said he's spoken with other superintendents about the same issues.

"We take the situation as it is and deal with it and continue to provide best education we can," he said.

Concerning teacher turnover, Massey said new teachers often get their start in small schools, then move on to higher-paying districts once they get experience. Over the past year, there had been a larger turnover, which was not the norm.

"Most of our teachers went to school districts that have a little higher salary schedule," Massey said. "Typically, Wheaton and smaller schools in general are a good place for rookie teachers to start. They stay a few years, then move on to places that pay a little more.

"We also have noticed some of our teachers being recruited by other districts, other districts that can afford to pay a little more than we can. We've had several of our teachers who have been contacted."

Massey said there's a teacher shortage across the state of Missouri right now, and he does not fault schools for trying to find good teachers.

"It's hard to find high-quality teachers," Massey said. "Schools are trying to come up with best teachers they can. And if that's an experienced teacher from a small district that's an area they will try to recruit from."

Consolidation to increase enrollment and state funding, and pooling resources is an option, which some school districts and communities have opted to do. But, Massey said he does not think it is an option for Wheaton.

"Wheaton is a great school, and I would hate to think of the community giving up on their school," he said. "We've got some tremendous assets and a good base of folks in Wheaton. This is a great school and has a lot of viability for years and years to come."

Massey said unifying more than one school district would create a lot of challenges, for several reasons. He said if Wheaton were to consolidate with another district similar in size, neither school would have big enough facilities, with the combined enrollment, to house the increased number of students, which would create the need to build a new facility, and a lot of capital to do it.

"I see the consolidation argument, there's just a lot of variables out there," Massey said. "Two districts the size of say Wheaton and the size of Exeter, about 700 kids combined, neither district has the facilitates to house them. It may look easy on the outside, two districts 10 miles apart, there's no reason why they couldn't just become one, right?

"But, when you really start looking at the challenges and issues, it takes a lot of finance capital, all those things that if you had those things, you wouldn't be worrying about consolidation."

Other challenges to consolidation, Massey said, could include deeply-rooted rivalries and resistance within a district or community. One school and community may not want to go over to the other, and visa versa.

"Neither would want to entertain losing their school," he said. "You live with it [issues of a small school district] and it becomes, as I like to say, it is what it is. So, we do that and figure out the best ways to move forward."

Despite decreasing enrollment, less state funding, teacher turnover and issues that plague a smaller, rural school district, Massey feels confident in the district and its efforts to help students.

For instance, Massey said the district is just finishing up a two-year process to get every student an ipad or Google Chrome book.

"At the start of the school year we will be 1:1," he said. "With K through sixth grades having iPads, and all of our students grades 7-12 will have Google Chromebooks. It was an investment we as a district and board felt that, to have global learners and students who are college and career-ready for the 21st century, we felt it was a progression we needed to make and the board committed to doing that.

"And, we had the opportunity to see that successfully completed in the last half of last year. So this is the first year we will fully implement that. We're pretty excited."

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