Retiring teachers, finances challenge Chadron schools

Gary Hoagland teaches physical science at Chadron High School. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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October 27, 2015 - 6:45am

Teachers from the baby boom generation are retiring – and that’s causing problems for schools across Nebraska and beyond.  The northwest Nebraska community of Chadron is dealing with the issue.

It’s an early fall morning in Chadron, and inside his physical science classroom, Gary Hoagland is explaining to his students the Bernoulli principle that helps airplanes fly. He walks around the room, giving illustrations, asking questions, and engaging the students.

Hoagland, who’s 57, has been teaching 28 years. And while he likes what he’s doing, he could move on.

“I love teaching and I love Chadron, too. The school system is a great system,” Hoagland said.  "The only way I would even fathom the idea of leaving Chadron right now with the rule of 85 is if I could find something that I enjoyed and continued to have some income, because then it would become a financial situation.”

The "rule of 85" is one that says Nebraska school teachers can retire with full benefits if they are at least 55 years old, with 30 years of service. Many teachers, like Hoagland, are part of the post-World War II baby boom generation -- born between 1946 and 1964, and are reaching that point.

At Chadron High School, Principal Jerry Mack says that has produced a fair amount of turnover on his 26-teacher staff.

“We’ve had two teachers retire each of the last three years and we can see that we have a couple more teachers that are going to retire in the next couple. So those are your baby boomer generation that we see rolling through,” Mack said.

Mack says those retirements create a challenge.

“We have less teachers coming out of the college setting that are applying for these positions. We’re losing more staff than we have applying,” he said.  

Mack says the school district’s resorted to cold-calling teachers it’s heard are good, and asking retirees to recommend their own replacements. That has worked, but challenges remain.

“Probably three years ago we needed an English teacher for the high school and there just simply weren’t candidates out there coming out of the college systems,” he said, adding, “Of course we’re asking someone to come to teach in rural western Nebraska.”

Mack says Chadron is not alone in facing a shortage of teachers coming out of college. In fact, it’s probably better off than other places, with Chadron State College and its teacher education program just across the street from the high school.

But statewide, the Nebraska Department of Education says more than 165 teaching positions, in nearly one-third of the state’s school districts were either filled by someone not fully qualified, or simply left vacant last year.

Adding to Chadron’s challenges is money. Like many districts in rural Nebraska, it has received less state aid in recent years. Some districts have more than made up that loss from property taxes on booming farmland values. But Chadron Superintendent Caroline Winchester says her district can’t do that.

“Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of our land is non-taxed. And it’s non-taxed because of the Chadron State Park, (Chadron State) college, the National Forest Service, our hospital – and those are also entities that bless this district – but because of that, our levy is at $1.05,” Winchester said.

That’s generally the limit on school property taxes in Nebraska. And that, combined with the loss of state aid, has limited school spending increases in Chadron to less than one percent a year for a decade.  (For figures from Chadron Public Schools comparing tax and spending trends in the district to those statewide, click here). One reflection of that is in the starting salary for a teacher, which is about $33,000 a year in Chadron, compared to nearly $39,000 in Omaha.

Despite the demographic and financial challenges, Chadron has been able to replace recent retirees. Jonn McLain is a 25-year-old math teacher in his first year at Chadron High School. McLain graduated from Chadron State College before coming to work at the high school. But he says many of his classmates in the teacher education program decided not to go into teaching.

“’It seems about half of those that I can remember are teaching right now,” McLain said. “I know one guy is pursuing a master’s degree, another guy just chose to work on the farm. And then three or four of them I never heard back from after they went off to student teach.”

McLain is looking forward to the challenges of the future.

“It’s going to be different. And not knowing exactly how or what is the challenge -- and then also just preparing students for not only college but career and things after college, like what are we preparing them for? That’s the challenge,” McLain said.

In addition to new ones, there are also timeless challenges, and opportunities. Veteran teacher Gary Hoagland says you can make more money in other fields, but teaching offers its own rewards.

“To help the kid and see that little bit of glint in their eyes when they finally get a concept. Or you get a kid that’s really struggling, and all of a sudden this kid’s popping off with some correct answers. You can’t put money on that,” Hoagland said.

 Chadron and schools across Nebraska will have to find their own “correct answers” as they try to balance more teachers who are retiring with fewer young applicants wanting those positions. One bit of good news is while the number of students in Nebraska’s teacher education programs has fallen by almost half in the last six years, the number of graduates has remained steady.



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