FRIDAY FOCUS: Wyoming School Boards Association Leader on Public Education Puzzle

Teacher recruitment remains elusive as education officials chase moving targets

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, at the organization's headquarters in Cheyenne. (Wyoming Truth photo by David Dudley)

By David Dudley

Special to the Wyoming Truth

CHEYENNE, Wyo.—Public schools nationwide are struggling to hire teachers. Nearly nine of 10 public schools surveyed were understaffed, according to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Wyoming, raising pay may offer one solution. Though the average teacher salary in Wyoming is currently $61,437, post-COVID inflation has driven up the cost of living across the board. In October, the Joint Appropriations Committee backed a $68 million plan to increase K-12 funding—$25.2 million of which will be earmarked for professional staff.

“Raising teacher salaries is definitely a part of the answer,” said Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association. “However, there are other challenges that have nothing to do with salaries.”

As the teacher salary measure moves through the budget approval process during the 2024 legislative session, non-monetary challenges need to be addressed, too. The rural nature of Wyoming communities, for instance, adds another layer of difficulty for teacher recruitment. And while it’s difficult to pin down the number of teachers leaving their jobs, one in five Wyoming teachers said they may quit in the next year, and one in three said they were likely to quit in the next two years, according to a recent survey.

“We’re chasing several moving targets,” said Farmer. “These are complex challenges that require creative solutions.”

Farmer, 50, is a Casper native with four degrees from the University of Wyoming. He  taught political science, criminal justice and business law courses, among others, at UW for 17 years. He also served on the Laramie County School District No. 1 school board for 10 years before landing the WSBA job.

Founded in 1934, the WSBA provides its members — 47 of the state’s 48 school boards — with continuing education, financial services and practical publications. Additionally, the WSBA advocates for its members before the State Legislature, State Board of Education and other state and national agencies.

“When I was hired, my board wanted the WSBA to become a go-to resource for policymakers working on educational issues,” said Farmer. “I’m proud to say that we’re now regarded as an important voice to education policymakers.”

The Wyoming Truth recently spoke with Farmer about teacher recruitment, the rise of charter schools and potential solutions to the ongoing challenges of educating Wyoming’s students. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

What challenges are you currently facing?

Farmer: Broadly speaking, I would say one of my primary frustrations is people who say parents, businesses and taxpayers need to be more involved. School board members are elected. They are parents. They are businesspeople. And they are taxpayers. Those people are already governing the school, and they were elected by the community.

To say that parents aren’t involved ignores that parents are involved. There might be a vocal group of parents who are expressing a concern, and they may be louder than other parents and groups. But there’s another parent that was elected by the community at large, and that parent’s voice isn’t being heard. That’s the hardest part of government. Which voices do we hear?

What challenges are unique to Wyoming?

Farmer: Wyoming is among the most expensive states in the nation for healthcare, highways and education. We have smaller concentrations of people, so we struggle to attain the critical number of individuals to reach certain efficiencies.

How do you define those efficiencies?

Farmer: Some school districts are so small that it is not possible for them to have large classes. If you are in Dubois, Wyoming, [population 919, according to the 2021 U.S. Census report] you are going to have one high school language arts teacher regardless of whether you have 15 kids in a class or 25 kids in a class. That is one type of efficiency.

Another one would be the ability to purchase health insurance for employees. Insurance cost is driven by claims costs. When you have a small number of employees, one adverse health occurrence, such as cancer, could dramatically drive up the cost of obtaining health care. These factors drive up the overall cost of educating a child.

How do those challenges impact Wyoming schools?

Farmer: The same is true for the recruitment and retention of staff. When you are seeking to train staff, provide for benefits, purchase technology, purchase materials, it is difficult to reach an economy of scale, thus increasing the cost of these things. Then, there are non-monetary challenges. How do you get a good teacher to come to a community that’s isolated? How do you get a young teacher to come to a community where meeting a potential spouse is a challenge? That’s one example of the kinds of problems that impact retention.

Some communities view charter schools as a potential solution. Do you agree?

Farmer: Charter schools are an interesting thing. They’re definitely another tool in the toolbox. Every teacher has an innovative idea they’d like to see implemented if they didn’t have to adhere to the bureaucracy. But the really hard part is the business of running a school. How do you finance it? How do you hire people? How do you provide meals, transportation, special education and mental health services?

Then there’s the challenge of facilities. How do you find an adequate facility to house a school? They don’t really exist in Cheyenne, so you’ve got to build. But the footprint of an elementary school is about a 10-acre parcel. Now, you can do it smaller than that, maybe five acres. But where in Cheyenne can you find an empty five acres? You can’t.

That’s the business of a school. And that’s the part that requires a professional approach. And, frankly, like with any business, if you don’t have a critical mass then it’s very difficult to make it work.

What can stakeholders do to move the needle right now?

Farmer: We need to examine teacher salaries and benefits to ensure they remain competitive. We need to look at costs of living. In some Wyoming communities, housing is a serious issue. This is not something the school district alone can solve but they can partner with local communities to help identify and pursue solutions. We can look at teacher mental health programs and employee assistance programs to support the stresses of the job. We can look at professional development, seeking development that helps teachers do their job. We can look at ways of involving teachers in decision-making. When they are a part of the decision-making process, they tend to have more buy-in.

The University of Wyoming is looking at teacher preparation programs to determine how can we help people know before they get into a classroom if teaching is for them or not. We are exploring ways to decrease barriers to entrance into the profession. A number of districts are piloting apprenticeship programs to look at ways of assisting long-term paraprofessionals in getting their teaching credentials so they can go from classroom support to classroom teachers.

It is likely that there is not one simple solution. It is going to take a combination of things to adequately address the challenges our teachers face. School boards can learn about these and work to address both the monetary and non-monetary factors that play a role. They can be advocates for their teachers and can examine systemic issues that contribute to the pressures teachers face. However, in the end, this is not a problem schools can solve alone. Our Wyoming communities must also be a part of the solution. Our legislators and policy makers need to be a part of the solution.

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