It’s hiring season for Northern Virginia schools—the time of year nearby districts compete for the highest quality educators to fill thousands of teaching positions in some of the nation’s fastest growing school systems. And the time of year Loudoun County Public Schools finds out just how it measures up with its neighbors, as teachers weighing job offers compare everything from salaries and benefits to classroom sizes.
Every spring, as school and county leaders consider how to tighten the school district’s budget, they hear a repeated warning from teacher groups and school administrators not to cut teachers’ pay or benefits for fear that Loudoun County will fall behind other nearby districts in its ability to retain and recruit quality teachers.
A look at the numbers—including salaries, health insurance and post-retirement benefits—shows Loudoun falls about in the middle, with school districts to the east offering higher salaries and better benefits, and those to the west offering far less (see chart). But some are nervous that the sweeping changes to health insurance premiums and post-retirement benefits the Loudoun County School Board adopted earlier this year will be the catalyst for sending more teachers east.
“It all has people looking at nearby school systems,” said Sandy Sullivan, the former president of Loudoun Education Association who now teaches kindergarten at Sully Elementary School. She has taught in Loudoun County for 19 years and says she has not considered changing school districts because she likes living in Ashburn, a short commute from where she teaches. “But I’ve definitely heard people say they are frustrated with Loudoun right now. They’re thinking about whether they’re willing to trade a further commute with more stability in their health care coverage or for more regular salary increases.”
Competing With Fairfax
Loudoun school leaders consider Fairfax County Public Schools their major competitor, as they should. Fairfax County is Loudoun’s closest neighbor that offers slightly higher pay and significantly higher retirement pensions. Just like a Loudoun public school retiree, a Fairfax retiree will receive a monthly check from the Virginia Retirement System, which comes out to roughly half of a retired employee’s salary. But the Fairfax County employee also will receive another pension check from a local retirement system called Educational Employees’ Supplementary Retirement System of Fairfax County. For a retired teacher with 30 years of experience whose three-year average salary was $60,000 that equates to an additional $1,200 per month.
That second pension check makes Fairfax County look more attractive to employees thinking long-term, Loudoun County School Board member Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) said. Bergel taught high school English in Loudoun County until she was elected to the School Board in 2008. She now teaches English in Fairfax County—Loudoun School Board members cannot work for the school district—and is one of the most vocal board members in advocating the protection of employees’ pay and benefits to keep Loudoun competitive. “We need to think about what the districts closest to us are providing their employees,” she said.
An extra check during retirement is not enough to lure all teachers, especially Loudoun’s younger teachers, to commute east.
Nicole Daniel, 27, actually drives west 25 miles from her home in Centreville to teach AP psychology and economics at Loudoun County High School. Even in light of Farifax’s superior retirement pensions, she plans to stay put. “I feel like if I were in my 20th year I would worry more about retirement benefits, but it’s not a super-high priority right now,” she said.
Attracting From The East
For nine years, Pam Palmer has made the 40-minute drive from Winchester to Leesburg, where she teaches second grade at Ball’s Bluff Elementary School. She says the drive can get long, but her salary in Loudoun helps her afford a single-family home. “I’m in between a rock and a hard place because I can’t afford to live in Loudoun where I work, and I can’t afford to work in Winchester where I live.”
It is all relative, it seems. It should come to no surprise that the smaller school systems to the west fear they will lose teachers to Loudoun County, with its higher pay and shiny, new schools.
Stuart Wolk, Frederick County School Board chairman, understands why teachers commute east for as much as $10,000 more per year, but he admits there is not too much his school district can do about it.
“We’re not going to catch Loudoun County as far as our pay goes—it’s just not realistic,” Wolk said. “We’re focusing our efforts on staying competitive on our side of the mountain.”
More Than Pay
Loudoun County sends recruiters to Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia to find enough quality applicants to fill roughly 600 teaching positions each year. Just 37 percent of the school district’s teachers are from Northern Virginia, according to Loudoun schools’ Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Services Kimberly Hough.
Loudoun has had little trouble filling its teaching positions, she said, even in previous years when salaries were frozen. She expects that is because Loudoun has a lot going for it: high graduation rates, relatively low class sizes, new technology in the classrooms and a variety of school settings, from rural Round Hill Elementary to racially diverse Sterling Middle School.
“We have something for everyone; we have a great reputation; and, on top of that, Loudoun County is a very desirable place to live,” Hough said.
Bergel says teachers consider a long list of factors when choosing which school system to work for, including facilities, classroom sizes, staff support and specific programs, such as elementary school foreign language. “In a lot of cases, it’s hard to pin-point why a teacher takes a job at a certain district because there are too many factors educators are considering,” including life circumstances, she said.
For Jeffrey Reed, the history department chair at John Champe High School, the decision to switch school districts was about a special job opportunity. He lives in Manassas and took the job at John Champe last fall after teaching for seven years for Prince William County Public Schools. As a department chair in Loudoun, he is required to teach only three classes as opposed to five classes in Prince William. Teaching fewer classes frees him up to mentor teachers while still working daily with students. “It was a great opportunity,” Reed said. “The pay is rarely the No. 1 reason why any one takes a job in this profession.”
Daniel agrees it’s about more than pay. She could get paid as much as $3,000 more a year if she worked in Centreville where she lives, but she loves her job at Loudoun County High School. She says Loudoun is special in its support of student creativity, school spirit, diversity and high student achievement. “It’s the culture that keeps me at that school, regardless of how tempting Fairfax’s pay may be.”
Loudoun schools’ Personnel Department is working to hone its techniques to recruit and retain teachers. It recently changed its exit interview form to include a series of checkboxes to make it easy for outgoing employees to indicate with which school system they took a job. “That will help us keep tabs on exactly how competitive we are,” Hough said.
In the meantime, Hough is optimistic that even with the changes to how Loudoun covers health insurance and post-retirement benefits, the county can draw and keep excellent teachers.
“We’ll always be able to attract top talent because we have a great reputation,” she said. “We can’t fall asleep at the wheel and take our employees for granted, but we have enough going for us that we don’t have to give up the farm every year, either.”
The national average for teacher turnover rate is 17 percent. Fairfax County’s turnover rate is about 13 percent, and Loudoun County’s was almost half that last year at 7.62 percent. Only time will tell if the changes to Loudoun’s benefits will be enough to send teachers to neighboring districts, but for now, Loudoun must be doing something right.