‘Keep shedding people’: Does Fairfax Co. pay enough to attract, retain teachers?

Virginia’s largest school system has started hiring teachers for the 2023-24 school year, with a focus on filling vacancies at schools with large shares of students from low-income families.

During a school board work session this week, Chief Operating Officer Marty Smith said Fairfax County Public Schools hired 51 teachers last week and has a pool with “40 qualified candidates.” The first of the county’s spring recruiting trips started Tuesday, he said.

At the start of the current school year, Superintendent Michelle Reid said 99% of teaching positions were staffed, though the county is still faced with some challenges, such as a shortage of high school chemistry teachers.

The hiring efforts come in the backdrop of a nationwide teacher shortage, and as the county’s school board works on the fiscal 2024 budget.

The proposed $3.5 billion budget includes a 3% cost-of-living raise for all employees, but board members said they fear the county’s salaries aren’t remaining competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

“That employee compensation piece does strike me as a place where our system is bleeding,” school board member Abrar Omeish said. “The more we prolong it and push it, the worse off we’re going to be. Five years from now, if we look back and we’re like, ‘What happened to the FCPS brand? How did we break?’ COVID was a moment, but really, I think that our decisions in the aftermath of that, including this piece right now, are important.”

How Fairfax County salaries compare

When compared to salaries offered in other Northern Virginia school systems and Montgomery County, Maryland, teacher salaries in Fairfax County lag behind, according to data presented to the school board.

Fairfax County Public Schools ranks fifth out of nine school systems for total career earnings in the current fiscal year, and its minimum, mid- and maximum teacher salaries for the pay scale for those with master’s degrees rank seventh, ninth and eighth, respectively.

A chart showing pay for some teachers in Fairfax County, Virginia. (Courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools)

Board member Megan McLaughlin said the salaries are higher when contributions to the teachers’ retirement fund are taken into account. Employees contribute 3% of their salaries to the Educational Employees’ Supplementary Retirement System of Fairfax County, and the school system expects to contribute 6.44% next year.

“We are really harming employee perception, employee morale — people are talking about wanting to leave us,” McLaughlin said. “We’re not putting out numbers to help them understand, whether you’re here for us for a year (or) whether you’re here for us for a career.”

Smith, the operating officer, said for employees just out of college, “it’s hard for them to understand what the benefit (of higher retirement contributions) might be down the road.”

Many county employees have left Fairfax for nearby Prince William County, Omeish said. School board member Laura Jane Cohen said Prince William County, the state’s second-largest school system, is expected to offer employees a 5% raise in its proposed budget.

Proposed fiscal 2024 raises for Northern Virginia school systems. (Courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools)

“If I am trying to find a job in Fairfax County, I’m looking at these charts, and why would I go somewhere where we’re fifth, ninth, eighth? We’re just going to keep shedding people,” Cohen said.

The school system, Reid said, is hiring “early and first” for openings at Title I schools, where children from low-income families make up at least 40% of enrollment, and has the intention of placing new staff members at Title I schools first.

Competition for talent

Still, there’s a lot of competition for teaching talent.

Prospective new candidates, Smith said, “can average between 12 and 13 offers from other school systems that are at the (hiring) fair today. It’s a very different market than it was in the past, where candidates have much more choices available to them.”

Fairfax County schools had an 8.7% turnover rate for teachers during the last school year, Smith said.

The school system is falling short of meeting its goal of having five qualified applicants for every open teaching position, according to school board documents, and hasn’t met its target of a 97.5% fill rate by July 1 the last two years.

The county has, though, met or exceeded its target retention rate of 85% for teachers, administrators and operational staff members.

To assist its recruitment efforts, the county will continue its teacher resident program for teachers still obtaining specific licenses and continue to offer incentives to substitute teachers on popular days that teachers take off.

One of the county’s top retention concerns, officials said, is keeping employees close to retirement working in the school system because of their “institutional knowledge and value to (the) organization.”

At a public hearing on the proposed budget, many parents and students advocated for funding for a second athletic trainer.

Leslie Houston, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said at the hearing that the group asked for a 9% market scale raise for all employees, and that the budget priority “was designed to restore employees’ faith in FCPS’ commitment to pay its workforce.”

A final budget is scheduled to be approved later this spring.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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