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Featured column: Superintendent's Corner: Educator shortage is a growing concern and impossible to ignore

In February 2015, 75 community members came together to forge a new strategic vision for our district.The result of this day-long process provided a framework for a new five-year district strategic plan.

Most notably, the No. 1 strategic priority as identified by the River Falls community was to ensure that we "retain and hire high quality faculty and staff" if we are to continue our tradition of excellent schools.

To meet this priority, several factors must be considered such as sound hiring practices, supportive professional development/training, supportive and effective performance evaluation systems, implementing research-based best practices in the classroom, providing appropriate resources, and remaining competitive in the wage market.

Compounding the challenge of maintaining high quality people to work with our students is the growing shortage in candidates for these positions. Filling educator position vacancies has become a great challenge here in Wisconsin as well as across the nation.

Causes behind this shortage are many: High numbers of baby boomers are retiring; college graduates can make more money in different careers; increasing demands and mandates on school requirements; societal pressures; increasing safety concerns; student discipline matters; pay and benefit stagnation; and the list goes on.

The work life of an educator is fast paced, ever-changing, deeply challenging and, quite frankly, for some, these jobs have simply become less attractive.

Keeping great people in our district also becomes a challenge. We have lost some good people not only to retirement, but also to higher paying jobs in Minnesota - particularly the metro-area.

The good news is that we are winning the battle and we are blessed to have a supportive school community, great kids and parents, and a school culture that is filled with family values that help us attract and retain great people.

Yet challenges remain and strategic measures must remain intact if we are to continue as an education leader in Wisconsin.

Here is a bit of insight for you: Our district now has 21vacancies to fill for the next school year. About half are retiring and the other half are resigning for various reasons. One third of our high school staff have been hired in the last three years. We couldn't find an elementary Spanish teacher this year, nor a part-time school psychologist.

The number of applicants for some positions is slim, particularly in areas such as math, science, special education, and auxiliary/specialty areas. Supply and demand affects our hiring abilities as well as wage related decisions.

We post vacancies as early as possible to get ahead of the supply game and to increase the odds of finding great people to educate our kids.

To be honest, our administrative team is very good at finding these people and explaining the benefits of working in our schools and in this community. Remember, the goal isn't to find "just anybody."

The School District of River Falls, innovative leader in personalized learning, ensures the development of every student’s unique potential in order to excel as responsible, productive, global citizens, facilitated by forward-thinking staff in a safe, nurturing, and collaborative environment. We only hire great people -- no exceptions.

Simply put, part of the lure to hook them into coming here is based on the quality of our school system as well as our community.

The final piece to attracting and retaining great employees is to provide appropriate pay.

Recently, the Board of Education made modest 2.8% wage adjustments for all employee groups in the district.

The board looks closely at comparable wage schedules from districts in our region of the state to remain competitive in the market. To be clear, we are not "leading" any wage race, but we are strategically remaining competitive with wages compared to our region of the state, to help ensure we retain and hire high quality people even amid challenges.

Although the educator shortage problem continues to plague our state, rest assured the River Falls School District continues to bring amazingly talented, caring, and professional people to continue our rich pride and tradition of educational excellence.

The attraction? Great schools and a great community!

-Jamie Benson, school district superintendent

Jamie Benson

Benson's column, Superintendent's Corner, regularly appears in the River Falls Journal.