It's no secret that teaching isn't a glamorous job—the pay isn't great, the hours can be brutal, the kids aren't always happy to be in school. Across North Carolina, schools are struggling to keep educators in the classroom. Over the past five school years, the state average for teacher turnover has exceeded 14 percent.
In Durham County, this problem is particularly acute. Here, the turnover rate for the last five years has hovered around 20 percent. That's the tenth-highest ranking in the state and significantly higher than Durham's neighbors: Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (18.5 percent last year); Orange County Public Schools (16.1 percent); and Wake County Public Schools (13.36 percent). The good news is that Durham's turnover rate actually declined slightly in the 2015–16 school year, though it's still north of 19 percent.
Historically, says assistant superintendent of human resources Thomas Crabtree, Durham has always had a higher turnover rate because of the nature of why people are in Durham. Most are here because they're tied to someone at Duke University, N.C. Central, or another higher-education institution. Once that person finishes his or her curriculum, it's also time for the teacher to move on as well.
Indeed, teachers leave districts for myriad reasons. In the 2014–15 school year, according to state records, 488 of the 2,389 teachers at Durham Public Schools left. About a third of those 488 went to pursue another education job in the state—in other counties, in charter or private schools, or nonteaching positions in education. But nearly half of departing teachers are leaving education in North Carolina altogether. In Durham in the 2014–15 school year, 46 percent of those who left did so for "personal reasons," which includes everything from retirement to taking positions out of state.
The debate over what to do about teacher turnover usually focuses on pay. In North Carolina, despite a recent election-year upgrade, teachers are paid among the lowest salaries in the nation.
A supplement is the amount counties pay on top of the standard state salary. For a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree, the base salary is a meager $35,000. A teacher with five years of experience will make $37,250. That goes up to $41,720 if the teacher earns a certification from the National Board for Professional Teacher Standards. While baseline salaries are set by the state, local districts are allowed to give supplements. So in Durham, first-year teachers making $35,000 are eligible for a $4,375 supplement, an increase to $39,375. A teacher with five years under his or her belt and a certification would receive an extra $5,215.
On average, supplements account for between 12.5 percent and 18.5 percent of a teacher's salary in Durham County. In Wake County, the supplement ranges from 17.25 percent to 23.25 percent.
This difference, Crabtree says, is costing Durham teachers.
"We do lose teachers to Wake County, primarily because of the higher supplement," he says. "We lose the most teachers to Wake County."
During a joint meeting of the school board and county commission last week, superintendent Bert L'Homme pointed out that Durham offers a stronger supplement than the state average. "One of the reasons why Durham is one of the best supported from the local government is because we have a good, robust teacher supplement," he said.
But the local supplement doesn't stack up with neighboring counties, and the school board knows it: "We're competitive among the schools throughout the state, but when it comes to Wake County and Guilford County and Chapel Hill, we're not competitive. And we want to do something to correct that," says Crabtree.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Show Them the Money"