Low pay is exit sign in county


A majority of the teachers who left the Carroll County school system last year did so for more money or better benefits in other districts - in and outside of Maryland - according to an analysis of exit surveys.

The results of exit surveys submitted by teachers who left during the 2004-2005 school year also revealed that a vast majority of them - nearly 75 percent - would recommend Carroll to a prospective employee and to potential students.

More than 200 surveys were distributed to teachers who retired or quit during the school year and in August to those who left at the end of the school year, said Jimmie Saylor, the system's human resources director.

About 30 percent of the teachers - 66 respondents - returned the surveys, which Saylor described as a typical response rate. The system has been conducting the annual survey since the 2001-2002 school year, she said.

"The numbers may have changed, but the percentages are fairly constant," she said. "There isn't a huge swing in one area or another."

Saylor pointed out that while more than two dozen survey respondents said they were leaving to work with another school system, nearly half of the teachers hired for the most recent school year came to Carroll with years of teaching experience.

"I feel like we lost some, but we gained more," she said. "The other thing I thought was very telling is that only seven people said they would not recommend our school system. It's really unfortunate there are even seven people who feel that way, but it says a lot that we have so many who would recommend it."

Robert Ridgely, 29 - who taught third grade at Manchester Elementary for five years before accepting a job last fall with the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn - said he enjoyed working in the Carroll school system, but felt compelled to quit for financial reasons.

"It was a wonderful school," he said. "I had a wonderful principal. If we had any problems, he was always there backing you up."

But he said he decided to leave because he couldn't afford to support his family on his teacher's salary.

At the Social Security Administration, Ridgely is earning $35,000 - about the same as he was earning teaching, but with the promise of an $8,000 raise in each of his first three years on the job, plus annual cost of living adjustments.

"My wife and I had to move to Pennsylvania [when he was teaching] just to afford a house on our teachers' income," said Ridgely, whose wife, Amanda, 27, teaches fourth-graders at Sandymount Elementary in Finksburg.

Although Robert Ridgely did not participate in the exit survey because he quit during the course of this school year, its findings echoed his sentiment about feeling supported in the system.

In response to the question, "What resources, interventions or support did you receive during your experience" with Carroll's school system, the most prevalent answers included: "new-teacher orientation including mentoring program"; "great support from my school staff and colleagues in my department"; and "support from principal, supervisor or team leader."

Listed among the "greatest success" teachers felt they had within the school system were responses such as: "personal and professional growth," "gained experience in my field of education," "gained experience and confidence in dealing with difficult situations," and "leaving as a confident, improved, effective teacher."

The departing teachers also were asked what could the school system do to improve its retention of educators. Among their responses were answers such as: "offer better salary"; "offer better health care options"; "continue to develop the mentoring program"; and "differentiation of salary and more monetary incentives."

"This survey [shows that] people leave for a variety of reasons," Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said. "Some leave for another school system, some because their spouse has been transferred and some are going home to raise a family. It's consistent with what has been happening" in years past.

School officials have acknowledged that teacher pay in Carroll lags behind some neighboring systems. Board members recently adopted an operating budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, that allocates about $8 million for the second year of step increases and a 3 percent pay raise for union-represented employees. The budget also includes about $186,000 to fund as many data clerks as possible at the elementary and middle schools to help with mounting paperwork demands.

Educators like Ridgely worry that the pay boost is not enough.

"Honestly, you don't do it for the money. ... When the light bulb goes off and you see that the kids are getting it, that's your pay," said Ridgely, who added that during college he was naively optimistic about living on a teacher's salary. "But when you start getting all those bills to pay, it's a harsh reality."

The Ridgelys, who hope to become financially stable enough to start having children in the next couple of years, have since bought a $240,000 townhouse in Westminster.

"We would've never been able to afford that on two teachers' salaries," he said.

He said leaving teaching was one of the hardest things he has ever had to do, but he had to put taking care of his family first.

"If [teachers' pay] was comparable to what I make now, I'd still be there," he said. "I would've stayed for life."


Survey highlights

Teachers who retired or resigned during the 2004-2005 school year were asked to complete an exit survey that inquired about their reasons for leaving and what might have kept them with the county school system. The question, "What feedback would you offer to aid in retaining teachers?" yielded these most prevalent responses:

Offer better salary

Offer better health care options

Continue to offer and develop the mentoring program

Differentiation of salary and more monetary incentives

Continue new teacher programs and mentoring

Fewer nonteaching demands/more flexibility with staff development

Smaller class size

[ Source: Carroll County public schools]

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