Indianapolis Public Schools first-grade teacher Janeen Burkhart was tired of her hour-long commute to work, a high-pressure teaching environment and not getting a raise.
That’s why this summer she decided to quit her job at IPS School 19, a kinesthetic learning magnet school for grades K to 8 on the South side, and take a position as a sixth-grade teacher at Decatur County schools, a small district near Greensburg.
“It was a great school, and the kids were pretty good,” Burkhart said. “Our scores were awesome, but we teachers put in a lot of extra hours.”
Burkhart is one of nearly 140 teachers and certified staff who have quit IPS since May — a jump from last year, and a pressing concern for district officials as the first day of school nears. Another nearly 60 teachers have retired this summer.
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee argued this week that the losses were not far out of line with recent years and said he was confident the district would fill its open jobs with good candidates.
But IPS board member Michael Brown said Tuesday he was worried about the district’s ability to fill 117 vacancies for teachers or other certified educators by fast-approaching start of school on Aug. 4.
Brown said he believed the teachers were being recruited to other nearby Marion County schools for more money.
“A school board member from Pike (Township) thanked me for all the fine teacher candidates,” Brown told other board members Tuesday. “I’m hearing that Pike and Warren (Township) are recruiting our people.”
So far, IPS has seen nearly twice as many resignations made by teachers and other certified personnel this summer than during the same months in 2013, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of district personnel reports. The district employs about 2,200 teachers.
Nearly 140 teachers and certified staff have quit since May. Seventy certified employees quit last summer.
But resignations were also fairly high in the summer of 2012, when 94 teachers and certified personnel quit between May and July.
Ferebee said he isn’t worried.
“We haven’t seen unusual high numbers or spikes in resignations,” Ferebee said. “It’s just a part of what happens when you start the school year. We’ll ensure that we’re fully staffed and prepared for the opening of school.”
Rhondalyn Cornett, president of IPS’ teachers union, said she thinks this summer’s resignations are a sign that IPS needs to become more competitive.
The union and the district are just a little more than a week away from beginning negotiations over a two-year contract. Both parties have said they believe higher teacher starting salaries may be necessary to attract and retain great teachers.
“The district needs to ask ‘What do we need to that’s going to keep these people here?’ and have an honest conversation with themselves,” Cornett said. “I know compensation is a big deal and I know benefits are a big deal, but I’m telling you, it’s a lot about respect. They don’t feel respected.”
Ferebee questioned the notion that IPS was unable to compete with nearby districts.
“We’ve also received teachers from other school corporations,” Ferebee said. “It’s a cycle that happens. Obviously, we’d like to hold on to our most effective and loyal employees, but at the same time, we know people are always looking for opportunities to advance and move onto greener pastures.”
Pike Township school officials said they were not actively recruiting IPS teachers to come to the Marion County district.
Of the approximately 60 teachers that Pike Township human resources director Joe Lampert said he has hired so far this summer, he estimated that only a handful were from IPS.
“We’ll lose staff members as well to other districts,” Lampert said. “People have choices, and for whatever reason, they may see the grass is greener somewhere else. I don’t see that we have a mass exodus going one place or a mass influx from a certain district.”
What troubles IPS about the resignations is how close to the start of the school year people are quitting.
“I understand people have to do what they have to do, but this is going to mess with starting the structure of a school year,” Cornett said. “You have to think about the students first.”
IPS is now working overtime to recruit new teachers to the district.
Deputy superintendent Wanda Legrand said she and IPS’ human resources team interviewed close to 30 teacher and staff candidates over the weekend to make sure the district is ready for the first day of school.
And Ferebee is confident that the district is developing teacher talent pipelines from nontraditional routes, such as Teach for America and The New Teacher Project.
The board approved a contract Tuesday with The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit founded in 1997 by education reform advocate and ex-Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, to recruit and train a new group of teaching fellows for IPS.
“The great thing about where we are is we have a large number of candidates interested in being a part of the team,” Ferebee said. “We’ve tapped into pipelines here … and we’ll continue to do that.”