Pop quiz: What do high truancy rates and low test scores have in common in the Harrisburg school district?
According to administrators, both are caused by high rates of teacher turnover.
Resignations in Harrisburg’s school district reached a five-year high during the 2017-18 school year, when 136 classroom teachers, principals, aides, librarians and other school building employees quit their jobs, according to district data. (At a given point, the district employs about 580 union-represented teachers and aides across its 13 school campuses.)
In the past year, officials have said that this churn of teachers undermines student performance in the city’s struggling schools. And while administrators have designed programs to boost teacher retention, records obtained by TheBurg suggest they’re not informed by much data.
Records obtained under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law reveal that, for at least five years, fewer than 2 percent of departing employees chose to submit exit interviews to the district. These voluntary surveys allow employees to explain why they resigned and what the district could have done to keep them employed.
Of more than 550 employees who resigned from the district between August 2013 and December 2018, only 11 submitted exit interviews to the district. Of those who did, only nine offered substantive, qualitative reflections and feedback to administrators.
With such a paltry response rate, the exit interviews hardly constitute a sample size from which to draw conclusions about workplace conditions in Harrisburg schools.
But the survey responses, which came from assistant principals, teachers and safety monitors, do constitute the most official data that administrators have as they try to stem the flow of employees out of the district. And that mission has high stakes.
Matter of Pay
The leaders of the Harrisburg Education Association (HEA), the union representing teachers and classroom aides, have long acknowledged that pay in Harrisburg is lower than in surrounding districts.
The average teacher salary in Pennsylvania is $67,535, according to data from the state Department of Education. But the average pay in Harrisburg is almost $10,000 lower, coming in at just $58,257 a year.
The median salary in 2018 was $56,852, according to data obtained by TheBurg.
It may come as no surprise, then, that five employees—45 percent of all respondents—who submitted exit interviews to the district between 2013 and 2018 said they were dissatisfied with their pay.
One employee, a school nurse working at SciTech High School, said she resigned to take a better paying job in a different district.
“The salary has not kept up with cost of living and with the pension program,” the employee said. “I will miss people here, but I felt I need to move on for this reason and expand my horizons.”
Another employee, who said she was overall satisfied with her workload, resources and even her salary in Harrisburg, still said that “pay/compensation” and “job security” led her to pursue a new job closer to her home.
The reason for Harrisburg’s relatively low teacher salaries dates back to the financial crisis the city experienced throughout the early 2000s, when the district was still under mayoral control. Until 2011, a board of control appointed by Harrisburg’s mayor ran the district, and its finances were intermingled with the city’s.
That arrangement allowed for a number of questionable transfers of money from the school district’s coffers, particularly under former Mayor Steve Reed, who diverted more than $8 million in district funds to Harrisburg University in the early 2000s, according to a PennLive report.
At the same time, the district was borrowing money to pay for its own expenses, a 2008 report from Pennsylvania’s Auditor General found.
The transfers and borrowing exacerbated the district’s already-tight finances. Like the city government, the school district’s revenue streams are constrained by Harrisburg’s stagnant tax base and its large swaths of tax-exempt real estate.
Between 2011 and 2013, the district furloughed teachers, closed school buildings and eliminated educational offerings to wipe out a budget deficit. HEA members took a 5 percent salary cut in 2013.
The pay cut was later rescinded and teacher salaries restored, but union members remain frozen on the salary “step” ladder that would award raises based on longevity.
As a result, pay in the district has lagged behind that of neighboring school systems.
HEA President Jody Barksdale could not comment on the salary freezes, due to ongoing bargaining negotiations between the union and the district.
However, she confirmed that low pay and stagnant wages are tough pills for teachers to swallow. That makes it all the more important, she said, that the district find other ways to support and retain its educators.
“Obviously, we want to give our teachers support. We want them to feel like they can stay and have a career here and still be able to support their family,” Barksdale said. “We would like to be able to increase pay, but under circumstances of the [recovery] plan… it’s very difficult to get teachers and to keep teachers.”
Not all survey respondents cited financial concerns as a reason they left the district. As some responses show, an employee can be perfectly satisfied with pay but remain unfulfilled in other aspects of a job.
For example, one teacher who said she was “satisfied” with her benefits, pay and compensation, said she left the district due to “unsafe medical practices.”
In her undated exit interview, she said that the district would be a better place to work if it “hired licensed LPNs [licensed practical nurses] to staff the health room.”
A 2015 report by Pennsylvania’s auditor general found that none of Harrisburg’s school nurses had valid licenses between 2010 and 2014. They were subsequently replaced with licensed professionals.
District administrators said in January that the teacher’s concern had been investigated, and that current medical practices in the district are up to standard.
Other teachers said the district lacked resources to help students and staff respond to unruly students.
Three survey respondents told district administrators that they wanted more consistent discipline practices or more resources to support students who misbehaved in class.
“Working in HSD is hard when student behaviors are not addressed,” said one respondent, who completed an exit interview upon her retirement. “It takes too long to get students placed into special ed. settings, even students who qualify for services are not moved to the correct room for sometimes months on end. Additional behavioral support facilities are needed for students with chronic behavior problems.”
Another teacher said that offering a wider array of student services would make the district a better place to work.
“Students being held accountable for negative behaviors, mental health supports for students and families, alternative education opportunities for students facing challenges with learning in a regular educational setting,” she wrote.
She added that “professional development opportunities focusing on behavior interventions” could have prevented her from leaving the district.
These critiques echo remarks made by HEA members in 2016 and 2017, when teachers asked the Harrisburg school board for more mental health support and counseling for disruptive students.
At a school board meeting in November 2017, Barksdale said that violent outbursts among students were on the rise in elementary schools and that normal training did not prepare teachers for the mental health needs of students.
“This is serious behavior, and we’re not trained in how to deal with it,” Barksdale said. “The tools we have now are not enough.”
Barksdale said that HEA members, including union building representatives appointed in each school campus, try to debrief departing teachers one-on-one to learn why they are leaving the district.
“Ninety percent of responses are that they feel unsupported with difficult student behaviors,” Barksdale said.
Barksdale and other teachers have been careful not to ascribe motives or malice to students who misbehave. In 2017, Barksdale and others told the school board that many disruptive students experienced trauma at home and acted out in school as a “cry for help.”
In a statement issued in late January, district administrators said that mental health services have long been lacking in Harrisburg and Dauphin County. The district contracts with Pennsylvania Counseling Services and Pressley Ridge to provide school-based outpatient mental health services. Additional support and resources are available through state and county agencies, they said.
Administrators also pointed out that parental involvement plays an important role in treating child mental health issues. If a student’s needs are greater than what the district can provide, a school counselor can refer him or her to the Dauphin County Case Management Unit.
But not all students who are referred ultimately get the services they need.
“Due to factors beyond the District’s control, this is a very long and time-consuming process, and as a result, many of our parents grow weary and lack the follow through with the lengthy process,” administrators said in a statement issued through a spokeswoman. “Sometimes, once services are in place, many times the agency will ‘drop’ the child from services due to parental non-compliance with appointments.”
According to Barksdale, teachers in the district do not believe that the district’s current systems are sufficient. She also pointed out that the district cut counselors in 2018 to resolve a budget deficit, despite repeated calls by teachers to increase counseling resources in schools.
The cuts have left fewer trained professionals to make referrals or assist teachers in school buildings, she said.
“This is where the lack of support and appreciation comes into play,” Barksdale said. “There’s limited tools we have as teachers to help with [student behavior], and a lot of that is, unfortunately, why people leave.”
Three survey respondents told the district that they were unsatisfied with their physical working environment. Others said that better facilities in another district made a new job more attractive.
Barksdale said that cleanliness is a problem in some district buildings, due to a shoestring staff of janitors and facility staff.
“When you are understaffed, the buildings aren’t as clean as they could be,” Barksdale said. “I know the people working there are working as hard as they can, but it’s very hard to replace people who are out sick or on leave.”
Teachers have also complained to union representatives about heating and air conditioning, Barksdale said.
District administrators responded only that, “Facility improvements are continuous and ongoing.”
In a joint statement, district officials said that employee exit surveys are reviewed by “designated members” of the administration and the Human Resources Department.
But they declined to say who in the district is ultimately responsible for improving teacher retention.
Administrators said only that they have in place “administrative collaboration to support teachers.” They also touted current initiatives—such as a yearlong induction and mentoring program for all new teachers, professional development seminars, and the elective Teacher Leadership Academy—that are designed to retain educators.
They also said that administrators are “working diligently” to improve the return rate on the surveys.
“The collected exit interviews have provided the District with invaluable data and insight into the processes and procedures that are working well in the District, as well as areas for improvement,” they said.
The district is currently contracting with an interim human resources director, since former HR Director Curtis Tribue resigned in January after being put on administrative leave last summer.
Interim HR Director Barbara Richards told the school board in January that she personally contacts each teacher who tenders a resignation letter to invite them to submit an exit interview. The practice has already yielded a much higher return rate on exit interviews, she said.
Nonetheless, the rate of employee resignations in Harrisburg shows no signs of slowing. School board documents show that 80 teachers, principals, administrators and other staff members have resigned just since August.