Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico Legislature touted an effort earlier this year to attract more teachers to the state’s public schools by increasing the base salary for educators by more than 10 percent.
Principals at public schools in Santa Fe say the raises have generated mixed results, however, and that a long-term solution to persistent teacher shortages will require further investments.
“I’m glad lawmakers have finally started to see that we have an education crisis on our hands here in New Mexico,” said Tina Morris, new principal of Aspen Community Magnet School. “And while I’m very grateful salaries are improving, we’re not by any means all the way there.”
Santa Fe Public Schools still has 30 vacancies for full-time teachers, enough for one per school, district officials said. The current number of open positions is twice as high as the number in August 2018, when schools were scrambling to fill 15 vacancies, according to data from the district. There were five in August 2017, data shows, and just two in August 2016.
Additional vacancies can emerge throughout the school year. Superintendent Veronica García said the district had 61 long-term substitutes in classrooms in the 2018-19 school year; their terms ranged between 21 and 168 school days.
Morris, who has 17 years of experience as a principal at schools in Clovis, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe, including three years at Tesuque Elementary, said, “I have never experienced so many challenges in trying to get a school staff as these last few years.”
Still, she has seen some success. Out of 11 openings she faced this summer at Aspen, a K-8 school, she has filled all but one middle school math class position.
“During interviews, I always show applicants the salary schedule, and for the first time this summer, I didn’t have people astounded at how low that number was,” she said. “I picked up a teacher from Colorado and another from Texas. That’s progress.”
State lawmakers, citing an annual study by New Mexico State University that showed rising numbers of teacher vacancies statewide in recent years, began taking a hard look at salaries. The 2018 New Mexico Educator Vacancy Report, released in November, showed the number of open teaching positions in public schools across the state had jumped by more than 55 percent between 2017, when there were 476 unfilled full-time jobs, and 2018, when there were 740.
The Legislature then raised the minimum salary for a beginning teacher to $40,000 a year from $36,000 and set the base pay for Tier 2 and Tier 3 teachers at $50,000 and $60,000, respectively. Those salaries previously were $44,000 and $54,000.
While statewide teacher vacancy numbers are not yet available, data from Albuquerque Public Schools shows the higher salary schedule might have had some effect there when it came to filling open jobs.
The Albuquerque district, which is seven times larger than the Santa Fe district — serving 84,000 students compared Santa Fe’s 12,000 — has 228 openings for full-time teaching positions, including 128 for special-education teachers. In early August 2018, Albuquerque had 285 openings. In 2017, it had 175 vacant positions, and in 2016 it had 214.
Officials with the Albuquerque district said they expect to fill many of the openings after extending dozens of offers to candidates who submitted applications at a job fair last week.
Santa Fe Public Schools also hosted a job fair last week to attract candidates who participated in alternative licensure programs, which offer a pathway for professionals from other fields to transition into teaching. García said officials have extended seven job offers to applicants from the fair.
The district also has expanded its effort to reach out to prospective teachers taking the more traditional pathway to a teaching career, attending job fairs not only at New Mexico universities with teacher preparation programs but also at Oklahoma State University and Texas Tech University.
The pay scale for teachers might not be the only factor preventing people from entering the profession in recent years.
Susan Lumley, principal of the Academy for Technology and the Classics — a charter school affiliated with Santa Fe Public Schools that has rated among the top schools in the state and offers higher salaries than the district — said she finally filled the last job opening this week.
But hiring this summer took extra effort, Lumley said.
She didn’t blame the state’s teacher raises.
“So few people going into the teacher profession,” Lumley said. “I think that’s really catching up with us. You can do a lot of things with a math degree as opposed to teaching.”
Lumley struggled to fill four jobs, and even ended up offering $5,000 signing bonuses to new recruits, something she had never done before.
ATC put up signs around Santa Fe announcing it was looking for new teachers and offering the bonuses.
“We really had to go all out this year as opposed to years past,” Lumley said. “We’ve had to pull out more stops.”
Santa Fe Public Schools, meanwhile, is also examining its substitute teacher roster to ensure there are enough subs to step into classrooms when teachers call in sick or take days off.
According to a presentation to the school board earlier this month by district Human Resources Director Howard Oechsner, the district receives some 2,600 requests for substitutes each month — around four per day at all 30 schools.
The district had 309 substitute teachers on its roster in May, Oechsner said, adding it was able to fill 75 percent to 80 percent of the daily requests.
“We have some really amazing substitutes who are former teachers themselves,” Morris said. “But nothing can replace the benefits of a permanent classroom teacher in the classroom getting to know the kids day in and day out.”