My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
One of the issues that has come to the fore in the election for the West Bend School Board is that of teacher morale. As with any large organization, some employees are not happy with how things are going and have poor morale. The School Board and district administration are tasked with understanding if poor morale is widespread or negatively impacting students to the point that changes in policy or leadership are necessary. Some folks in the community contend that teacher morale is a massive problem and cite high teacher turnover as a symptom of it. This begs the question, is teacher turnover a problem in the West Bend School District?
The short answer is: “no.”
Teacher turnover has been on the rise in the past few years in the West Bend School District. In the last school year, voluntary teacher turnover was about 6.7 percent. That is up from a little more than 4 percent in the 2011-12 school year and down from a spike of almost 9 percent in the 201011 school year.
One cannot tell whether 6.7 percent is good or bad without some context. Unfortunately, it is difficult to compare raw turnover numbers because different statisticians calculate turnover differently. Does the figure include only employees who quit, or also those who were fired? What about retirees? Eliminated positions? You get the idea. Still, even with the rough numbers, West Bend’s turnover rate is comparable to other surrounding districts and well below the national average.
According to the March 19 Daily News, the West Bend School District has the second lowest turnover rate when compared to that of the Mequon-Thiensville, Fond du Lac and Port Washington-Saukville districts. Nationally, the turnover rate for teachers is anywhere between 15-18 percent, depending on which study you choose to cite. As a raw comparison, West Bend’s turnover appears to be below the average of most school districts in the country and in the immediate area.
It is true that the turnover rate has been rising every year since the 2011-12 school year. There was a spike of almost 9 percent in the 2010-11 school year, but that was an anomaly due to a change in district policy regarding health insurance for retirees that prompted a group of teachers to retire before the change negatively impacted them. But West Bend is not alone — the turnover rate for surrounding districts and those all over the state have been rising. This is an intentional consequence of the landmark reform, Act 10.
Under Act 10, local governments, including school districts, were partially liberated from the strictures of union contracts that dictated regimented wage scales and work rules. Under Act 10, school districts began implementing reforms that would have previously been very difficult. For example, the Mequon-Thiensville School District implemented a merit pay system for employees. In West Bend, the school district tied some performance metrics to employee compensation and enacted reforms like the popular walk-in health clinic.
But not everyone is comfortable with change and it always creates some friction in any organization. Anyone who has ever been a part of a dynamic organization has seen people become uncomfortable, or become uncomfortable themselves, and the corresponding dip in morale for those people.
On the other side of the equation, Act 10 has infused a modicum of freedom into the labor market for teachers. Prior to Act 10, the strict compensation scales were weighted heavily to tenure within a district, so if an experienced teacher wanted to move to another district, they would often have to start over at the bottom of the tenure pile. Act 10 allowed many districts to pay teachers based on merit irrespective of their tenure. This allows teachers to more easily move between districts without being penalized and for districts to recruit the teachers they want.
The West Bend School District, for example, has a very competitive compensation package for teachers. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, West Bend’s employees are paid an average total compensation of nearly $84,000, which is in the top 7 percent of all districts in Wisconsin, and have an average experience of 13.5 years. In a more competitive labor market, school districts must act to attract talented teachers with things like a good working environment, support structures, good leadership and, yes, better compensation. Good teachers are benefiting from Act 10.
In any organization of the size of the West Bend School District, there will always be employees who are not happy and are vocal about it. But there is nothing in the voluntary turnover rate that indicates there is a widespread morale issue in the West Bend School District. The vast majority of the teachers are doing exactly what they love to do and what we love them for doing — providing an outstanding education for our kids.