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Future Full Of Uncertainty For Idaho Teachers

Doug Nadvornick

Teachers are getting ready to close out another school year and they face a summer of uncertainty. The next few months will be especially stressful for teachers in Idaho. Most, if not all, will make less money next school year. In March, Idaho lawmakers reduced pay for teachers and administrators as part of a 7.5 percent funding cut for public schools. That leaves districts with some tough decisions as they write new budgets this summer.


When the school board in the small town of Priest River met on a recent sunny spring afternoon, there was a feeling of quiet resignation. The district was one of the first in Idaho to officially declare a financial emergency.

Dozens of districts in Idaho have followed suit. Their votes, though, are mere formalities. Lawmakers in Boise already declared a school funding emergency for the entire state. That could trigger a second year of deep budget cuts in Priest River.

McGuire: "You talk about the low–hanging fruit — we barely have any branches left."

Mike McGuire is the superintendent in Priest River. His district is putting a supplemental levy before voters this spring. If it passes, McGuire says the district will tread water for another year. If it doesn't, he says the school board will have to take drastic steps.

McGuire: "We'd go to a four–day week. We'd lose all the sports. We would have to cut our bus routes back significantly. It's a laundry list."

It also means that, for the second consecutive year, teachers here would have to take a pay cut, maybe a steep one. That's a big deal in a state where starting teachers make about $30,000 a year. That puts Idaho 41st in the nation in a 2007 salary survey by the American Federation of Teachers, lagging behind Oregon and Washington.

The emergency declaration gives school boards the authority to re-open agreements with teachers and negotiate salary reductions.

Candy Turner is the head of the teachers' union in Priest River. She says her colleagues are frustrated. She says most will hunker down and weather the storm. But a few have taken early retirement. She says others are looking for greener pastures.

Turner: "I hear my younger teachers in this area talking about that they'll get their experience here and then go seven miles down the road and go into Washington because they can get paid more."

While some teachers are looking to leave Idaho, others are looking for jobs in the Gem State, and not having much success.

Student teachers who are graduating this spring from the University of Idaho meet periodically at Moscow Junior High School. They share stories about their student teaching experiences.

Miriam Cross is looking forward to teaching English to junior high or high school students.

Cross: "I like the younger, like ninth grade, eighth and seventh. I do enjoy those more than a senior class, but I'll take a job wherever they give me one."

That's the problem. Because school budgets are tight, there are only a few available teaching jobs in Idaho and many of those are snapped up by veteran teachers. Cross says she might go home to southern Idaho and get her foot in the education door another way.

Cross: "Luckily I have a lot of tutoring experience and there are tutoring agencies in southern Idaho that, in some cases, pay more than a teaching salary. So that would be my next option."

Cross' internship coordinator, Sally Greene, says it's a grim job market for her students.

Greene: "In Idaho, I think we're doing a lot of reducing by attrition. But what that means is where there would normally be a lot of newer positions opening up when people retire, those positions just aren't there."

So, enthusiastic teachers–to–be like Charles Chambers, have to wait their turn.

Chambers: "I fully expect to just be substitute teaching for a year and working another job, like waiting tables or selling cell phones or something like that, for my first year."

If he can wait until the economy turns around around, Chambers might eventually get his own classroom. But, if the economy continues to struggle, he and his young colleagues may end up turning to other careers. And then, says University of Idaho teaching internship coordinator Warren Bakes, Idaho schools would have a bigger problem.

Bakes: "The education profession is losing about 50 percent of their teachers in the first five years. In this environment, it may well be that an even higher percentage of our young people may not be able to get employment."

Greene: "There's going to be a lot of retirements. Over the next three to five years, they project that there's going to be a great need for teachers. If these people can kind of hang in there and find something to get by the next couple of years. Hopefully, they won't turn to something else or get burnt out on the profession because we need young, bright people in the profession."

That's especially true in Idaho, where teacher salaries continue to lag behind those of the other Northwest states.

I'm Doug Nadvornick reporting.

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