Rio Rancho Public Schools

It’s a trend states and districts are feeling nationwide: teacher shortages.

And local districts — including the state’s largest — are on the hunt to fill positions for the coming 2018-19 school year. Each district the Albuquerque Journal recently reached out to was trying to fill numerous slots.

As of early last week, Rio Rancho Public Schools had fewer than three-dozen open positions, mostly at the secondary level: “We currently have 20 general education teacher openings and 14 special education teacher openings,” noted district spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass.

U.S. Department of Education data for the 2017-18 school year showed that teacher shortages were affecting every state in the country.

Three years ago, a story in the Washington Post noted, “There’s a teacher shortage across the United States — but that’s not exactly news. The U.S. Department of Education maintains an annual list — state by state — showing the subject areas in which there are too few teachers going back to the 1990-91 school year.”

The Post then noted that “One 2013 poll found that teacher satisfaction had declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62 percent to 39 percent very satisfied, the lowest level in 25 years. Fifty-one percent of teachers reported feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 percentage points reporting that level in 1985.”

The Learning Policy Institute in September 2016 reported that “By 2020, an estimated 300,000 new teachers will be needed per year, and by 2025, that number will increase to 316,000 annually...

“Based on the evidence available, the emerging teacher shortage is driven by four main factors:

• A decline in teacher preparation enrollments;

• District efforts to return to pre-recession pupil-teacher ratios;

• Increasing student enrollment; and

• High teacher attrition.”

“The teacher shortage in New Mexico is severe, reducing the odds that New Mexico students will be served by a highly qualified professional,” said Charles Goodmacher, government and media relations director for NEA New Mexico. “The nationwide teacher shortage is made worse in New Mexico with the continued denigration of most teachers by the New Mexico (Public Education Department), which is long on public relations but short on what works to improve student success (and teacher satisfaction). 

“Common-sense solutions are found in the world’s highest performing education systems: respect for all educators; smaller classrooms, more preparation and collaboration time; salaries equal to other professions requiring the same education; and active recruitment of future teachers, with an emphasis on encouraging smart students from our diverse communities.”

Sue Passell, executive director of human resources at Rio Rancho Public Schools, has seen the situation from both sides; she originally was a teacher and administrator.

No matter, Passell said, “Yes, I would teach again because, to me, it is an extremely rewarding profession with great potential to do a lot of good in the world.”

New Mexico to Wyoming

Here in Rio Rancho, one former teacher said he loved his time but found he could nearly double his salary by heading north.

Yes: “nearly double” his salary. With a young family, including an infant daughter with a hearing impairment, what he was making in RRPS wasn’t getting it done.

So former Cleveland High teacher and coach David Holland, a member of the RRHS Class of 2004, decided to head north and become an Outlaw: He’s a teacher, Best Buddies founder and assistant wrestling coach at Rawlins High, home of the Outlaws.

“My father was a teacher at Lincoln Middle School for over 10 years; he was a teacher for over 25 years, now two years away from retirement. I wanted to be teacher so I could get into coaching,” Holland said.

Holland progressed through RRPS, from Stapleton Elementary to Lincoln Middle School, then to RRHS before six years of military duty.

After his time in the service, he returned to New Mexico, where former RRHS wrestling coach Dennis Friedland “recruited me. He wanted to see if I wanted to coach wrestling with him in Moriarty. I went to college and got my degree. My ultimate goal was to come back to Rio Rancho.”

That “ultimate goal” was met: former wrestling coaches Ben Vigil and Corey Anderson reached out and Holland came to Cleveland in 2015.

A good job, a coaching stipend, and a growing family … what else did he need? Money.

“I hadn’t planned on leaving,” Holland said. “I was making $34,000 a year with a master’s and a young family — we were financially struggling.”

To the rescue: an uncle living and teaching in Wyoming.

“I talked with my uncle and he said, ‘Come out to Wyoming.’ I saw what the pay was…. I ended up getting a job offer in Rawlins,” Holland said.

“The Rio Rancho district’s a great district —(superintendent) Dr. (Sue) Cleveland is phenomenal, the staff’s phenomenal. (But) my $38,000 included a coaching stipend; this (2018-19) year, I’m clearing $60,000, which includes coaching stipend. I accepted a position as assistant wrestling coach.”

Then came two bonuses: Holland is being compensated as an eighth-year wrestling assistant, giving him a stipend on $4,800, even though most of those years were in New Mexico, and the Carbon County Schools superintendent, Holland said, “gave a $2,500 bonus to every teacher.”

Yes, the winter was harder in Rawlins, but he’s found the cost of living there to be less.

“Believe it or not, during winter our electric bill is higher, but the summer’s cooler — we don’t have an air-conditioner in the house, so we save money,” he said.

Looking back, Holland says, “It was a tough decision to leave; now that we’re out here, my wife doesn’t have to work, and she can stay home with the kids. Everything medically (my daughter) needs is covered through the state.”

Holland, who had been active with CHS’s award-winning Best Buddies Program, started the first such inclusion program in Wyoming.

“We have almost 100 kids in the program, out of a student body about 430 kids,” he said. “(Best Buddies) was very successful at Cleveland; won back-to-back ‘Most Outstanding Chapter’ honors for the state. So I pretty much used the blueprint; we reach students and get them involved — it really worked out good...

“Our superintendent is amazing, really wanted to change things here in education, and we got a new principal at the high school. I think the support I’ve had is what helps me -- usually, a lot of people aren’t receptive to change, but we’ve been getting students to buy in. Everyone’s been open-minded and supported this 100 percent. It’s been great.”

Principal feels his pain

Patricia Di Vasto, longtime RRPS teacher, administrator and current principal at Sandia Visa Elementary, only wishes she could make teacher salaries commensurate for their value to society.

“There seems to be a theme — the expectations for teaching are so much different now than when they started out,” Di Vasto said. “They’re not having as much fun anymore. The expectations have changed and they would rather not be in the profession — if they have the financial capability to retire. … Salary seems to be the main thing.”

Of course, not many teachers — unless their spouse is well off – have that opportunity.

“(Salaries) do not match the expectations we have of teachers,” she said. “One of the reasons is New Mexico, and how we financially value teachers, and nationally, teachers’ pay is just not as important as in other walks of life.”

What about a $2,500 bonus, like Holland received?

Well, at Sandia Vista Elementary, there’s a Pie Day and, says Di Vasto, “Once in a while we let them wear jeans — and they’re so appreciative of that.

“We’re real limited on what we can do, like a little gift of appreciation,” she said.

As for the 2018-19 school year, her roster of teachers was complete except for one special education position and, expecting qualified people soon to be interviewed, said, “I’m in good shape.”

Di Vasto was asked if she could turn back the clock, be 25 years old again, would she still want to teach?

“I’d still do the same thing,” she said. “I love children; they’re my heart. I played school when I was real little and came from a family of educators.”