Missouri lawmaker proposes tool to fill ‘hard-to-staff’ school positions

Chris Roepe, a lobbyist representing the Kansas City School District, testifies before the Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent photo)

A Missouri House committee heard a bill Wednesday that seeks to give school districts a way to recruit educators into "hard-to-staff" positions -- though some worried it could have ill effects on teachers of popular subjects.

State Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, told the Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee his legislation has the potential to remedy high teacher vacancy rates in certain schools and positions.

Current law prohibits school districts from stepping outside of their specified salary schedule, but the bill would give districts an opportunity to increase pay for positions with high vacancy.

Testimony on the bill related it to the teacher-retention shortage in the state, a problem districts are attempting to solve with four-day school weeks, long-term substitute teachers and hiring under-qualified educators. According to Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data, seven out of every thousand teachers in grades 1-6 are under-qualified, as of December 2022.

Dava-Leigh Brush, a retired educator, thought the legislation could create a game of "Whack-A-Mole."

"I think that it's going to have people say, 'Hey, you're going to pay me more if I went to this school, so I'm going to go to this school. Now, I'm going to create a paucity in this school,'" she said.

She said districts already negotiate by placing teachers in different areas on the salary scale even if they have the same amount of experience.

"I see the need for this (legislation) in smaller rural districts, but I don't know that they're going to be able to have the funding to be able to do it and not pit teacher against teacher," Brush said.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, said some teachers whose positions don't qualify as hard to staff also take on more than other educators, such as those with large classes with English language learners and students with individualized learning plans.

"I just wanted to be very cognizant of the work that they're doing," she said, "and not pitting teachers against each other and saying, 'Well, now I need to move so I can make more money.'"

Lawmakers agreed some districts "haggle" by placing educators in varying places on the salary scale.

"Some feel that they already have this right as it is, and some use it already, even though others then say it's not explicitly stated," Lewis said. "This would explicitly state that to make sure that people can (differentiate pay)."

Nurrenbern said charter schools did not have a clear salary schedule, and it created tension among staff. She was glad to see Lewis's bill focus on explicit salary schedules.

But she and Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood, said they wanted an amendment to make clear that districts can't discriminate.

"I certainly would like to see an amendment in place here that explicitly states that we're going to ensure that we're protecting against discrimination of race, class, and gender and certainly sexual orientation," Nurrenbern said. "We've seen, far too often, openly gay teachers being fired from their districts."

Both Mike Wood, lobbyist for Missouri State Teachers Association, and Otto Fajen, Missouri's National Education Association legislative director, questioned the bill's removal of the words "applicable to all teachers" when describing the salary schedule.

"When you eliminate the words 'applicable to all teachers' in the bill, I'm afraid you end up with districts without any salary schedule," Wood said.

He was also afraid that shifting resources toward "hard-to-staff positions" would take money away from teachers in positions that are more competitive.

"It's easy to do this wrong, and you end up doing a lot more harm to the culture of the district and the staff and the schools than good," Fajen said.

The committee did not take action on the bill during its meeting Wednesday.

HB 190: Allows school districts to create differentiated teacher salary schedules


Sponsor: Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly