Low salaries, waning interest drives teachers away from rural school districts

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SHELBINA - Ryan Keller was looking for a place to start his teaching career. He received offers from school districts in Columbia and Kansas City, but did not even apply to rural districts across the state.

“I am not a small town guy. I am a city person, and I wanted more money and new experience,” Keller said. “All the other parts of the state that are miles and miles away from a big city, nobody wants to go there.”

Keller is not alone. A growing number of teachers are choosing not to work in school districts throughout rural Missouri, according to Missouri State Teachers Association spokesman Todd Fuller. 

“Anecdotally, I started to see it at teacher placement days or job fairs. You’d see large lines for St. Louis and Kansas City. But, for the smaller school districts, the lines would be much smaller,” Fuller said.

The Learning Policy Institute reports Missouri’s average starting teacher salary of $30,064 ranks 48th in the country. Missouri’s average is $6,077 less than the national average.

The assistant commissioner at the state's education department said teaching is a difficult job, which in many fields means good pay.

Paul Katnik said, "That's not the case in education. So, you're asking people to go do very, very difficult work, very professional level work, for pay that that really doesn't look at that.”

A county-by-county breakdown of starting salaries by the state teacher’s association shows 77 of Missouri’s 114 counties fall below the mean.

Katnik said he recognizes discrepancies between salaries at rural school districts and their metropolitan counterparts.

“What we find is that salaries are fairly comparable at the very first year,” Katnik said. “But, by year ten, rural schools have fallen way behind."

What drives salaries is connected to the local tax base.

"If you're in a community that's already poor, your only way to do better is to make the community pay more and the community already doesn't have much,” Katnik said.

Not only are teachers paid less in rural districts, but they are also asked to coach sports or  sponsor clubs due to the small faculty size. The superintendent of Shelby County R-IV, Tim Maddex, said teachers are not willing to accept the lower pay and increased responsibilities.

“You go to the cities and you can make $40,000 or $50,000 and not have to do extracurriculars. You come here, you may make $30,000 and you’re the basketball coach, the football coach or in charge of F.F.A,” he said.

Fuller believes the lack of industry in rural communities also causes teachers to avoid smaller school districts that need their help.

“There might be opportunities for them. But, for a significant other, there might not be anything at all. So, it may be very difficult to start a family in that area," Fuller said.

The number of people choosing to teach as a profession has also declined in recent years. The U.S. Department of Education reports, between 2009 and 2014, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped 36 percent nationwide and 22 percent in the state of Missouri.

Maddex said if teacher pay was similar to other jobs in the area, more people would be interested in teaching.

“We just got to work on making sure that we can get the funding up there so we can continue to get pay increases," he said. "If we are more comparable to professionals in our area, I think it would help to draw people back.”