Cale Nockels is so passionate about teaching that he once cut short a career in the U.S. Air Force to serve inner-city children.
“I saw a calling to work with young people,” he said Thursday. “They needed to have people in their lives that could influence them in a positive way.”
Now the 27-year-old algebra teacher at Northwest Classen High School is considering another career change. He and his wife want to start a family, and they say teaching won't allow them to make ends meet.
“For us it's getting to that point,” Nockels said. “We have to consider whether it's going to be possible or not to continue teaching.”
The Nockels are not alone.
Oklahoma City Public Schools, a 45,000-student school district that is largest in the state, is struggling to recruit and retain teachers because of low salaries and multiple challenges that include teaching in a district with high poverty, low parent involvement and a lack of educated role models for young people, school and union officials said.
State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi suggested on Aug. 23 that all Oklahoma teachers be given an annual $2,000 pay raise, but it's unclear how far that proposal will get.
Cale and Julie Nockels, 26, an art teacher at Northwest Classen, each make about $33,000 annually. It wouldn't be enough to live on if Julie decides to become a stay-at-home mom.
“It is very painful to think about one of us having to get another job because this is really the only thing we desire to do,” she said. “But when it comes down to it, you have to make the choices that are best for your family.”
Since April, about 100 teachers have left the district, school and union officials said. About half those jobs have now been filled.
“It's not because they were retiring or moving out of state,” said Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City union that negotiates with the district on behalf of 2,750 teachers. “It's because they went to work for a neighboring district.”
Allen said the top two reasons given by those teachers for leaving were lack of administrative support and low pay.
“It's serious work here. The kids have more needs. There's more poverty, more single-family homes, more English-language learners,” he said. “When you ask for help, no one knows what to do except tell you to work harder.”
Shannon Freeman is director of recruitment, deployment and retention for the school district. She acknowledged Friday that it has become increasing more difficult for many districts to retain new teachers.
The reasons Freeman gave for the difficulty included increased testing standards, bigger class sizes, a lack of appreciation for teachers, low pay, and employment opportunities outside of education.
“Recruiting is not challenging when we are able to identify teachers who understand the unique needs of teaching in an urban school setting,” she said. “Those who select teaching as a career and who want to impact the lives of young people, better the community and are aware of the known challenges … are more fulfilled and find ways to stay motivated.”
The district, Freeman said, has had success recruiting in economically depressed states with a surplus of teachers who find Oklahoma City's cost of living “extremely attractive.”
“The renaissance of downtown OKC is enticing to college graduates, and our continuous learning calendar is a definite asset in recruiting,” she said.
“As with any profession salary has a huge impact. OKCPS teacher salaries are more competitive for those with more than five years of experience.”
The continuous learning calendar shortens the summer break and increases winter and spring breaks.
Oklahoma City, which pays starting teachers with a bachelor's degree $32,925 annually, is losing young teachers like Nockels and his wife to higher-paying districts like those in Edmond and Putnam City, Allen said.
Edmond pays starting teachers about $1,200 more than Oklahoma City, Allen said.
Putnam City pays a starting teacher $33,750 annually, according to that district's website.
While Oklahoma City tends to reward senior teachers, Allen said surrounding districts have done just the opposite by committing more money up front to attract younger teachers.
“As a district and a union we cannot afford to fall behind in salaries and lose new talent,” he said. “The frustrating thing for the union … we do in Oklahoma City what most can't and won't do.”
Scott Randall, chief financial officer for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said the district, which is set to begin negotiating with the union, is trying to increase salary schedules to “recruit and retain younger teachers.”
Pay raises proposed
The proposal by Barresi to give Oklahoma teachers an annual $2,000 pay raise has been met with skepticism by school board members, district administrators and teachers.
Barresi, in a news release, said the raise “would not require increased state appropriations, but could be funded by tapping surplus funds and reducing schools' administrative overhead.”
In response, two state legislators who oversee funding for public education in Oklahoma raised doubts about the proposal, saying it would be difficult for the Legislature to come up with the $100 million needed to fund the plan each year.
Randall said Oklahoma City Public Schools can't afford to fund the raises despite carrying over an average of $24 million a year for the past five years. That money, he said, is used to pay school district bills between July and December, when state and federal money starts rolling in.
Randall said is would cost the district nearly $7 million annually to pay for the pay increases, money, he added, the district doesn't have.
“What she's proposed doesn't have a plan to come with extra money,” he said.
“It doesn't have a sustainable funding plan.”
The proposed increase, Barresi added, is designed to make Oklahoma more competitive with neighboring states, including Arkansas, Texas and Missouri, which pay teachers higher salaries.
“You don't want to have your best and brightest graduate from college and immediately cross the Red River,” said Oklahoma City School Board member Bob Hammack. “They may want to work here, but because we're not competitive they're lured away to other states.”
Barresi's proposal did little to comfort Julie Nockels, who said she has been down this roadbefore:
“It's exciting, but I'm not going to get my hopes up about it.”