Danielle Kinder has teaching in her family tree — her mom presides over a high school classroom down the hallway from her in Russell County and her sister used to be with them too before switching to elementary school.
But teaching in Russell County is difficult. It’s the second lowest-paying county in Virginia for teachers and a 45-minute trip to Tennessee or a shorter ride to neighboring Washington County, where teachers make, on average, about $10,000 more per year in either location.
“It’s hard because you want to serve the community you grew up in,” said Kinder, who teaches at the same school she graduated from. “It’s something I wanted to do, I wanted to give back to my community.”
Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed raising all teachers’ pay by five percent, 3 percent more than what’s in the existing state budget.
It’s the largest single-year pay raise for teachers in 15 years, the administration said.
But it still leaves Virginia at the bottom of national rankings for teacher pay, making it hard to be competitive with surrounding states.
And some of the lowest-paid teachers in the state, who will see a smaller dollar increase in their paychecks, are among those who have the easiest commute to teaching outside of Virginia.
“Virginia ranks near the bottom nationally for teacher salaries and rural school divisions are at the bottom of Virginia’s salaries, so rural Virginia teachers are some of the lowest-paid teachers in the nation,” said Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol city schools and member of the Small and Rural Schools Coalition. “An opportunity to adjust those salaries by 5 percent makes us more competitive with neighboring states. It’s certainly something for us to be excited about.”
Northam’s raise proposal isn’t guaranteed. It requires a local match, which could be difficult for districts that struggle economically, and lawmakers could still reject Northam’s proposal.
“It should come as no surprise that we have a teacher shortage in Virginia with more than 1,000 unfilled vacancies, given how poorly teachers are compensated for the important work that they do,” The Commonwealth Institute wrote in a report analyzing Northam’s proposal.
‘I want to do my best … sometimes I just don’t have it in me’
About three years ago, Kinder missed out on a state raise because Russell County couldn’t come up with the money for the match.
This year, Russell County gave teachers a two percent raise, but also had to increase the cost of health insurance. Kinder uses insurance from her husband’s employer, but her mother pays for the school system insurance. It now costs about $600 a month for a family plan.
“We have a lot of single mothers who work and have to have insurance for their children,” Kinder said. “Any raise we would even conceivably get in the future would barely cover it.”
Virginia’s spending on education decreased across the board during the recession and hasn’t recovered, The Commonwealth Institute wrote in a report. The Richmond-based think tank has published several reports about K-12 education funding.
When adjusted for inflation, education funding from the state is still down 9 percent per student from a decade ago, the institute wrote.
Shelly Yarber has taught kindergarten for 14 years in Russell County after switching from doing secretarial work. She has a master’s degree — and the debt to go with it — and makes about $40,000 a year.
She’s accepted that she’ll probably never pay off the loans she took out to get her master’s, but she tries anyway, working at an after school program for extra pay and working shifts at the local Walmart on the weekends.
In the past, Yarber used her associate’s degree in accounting and would pick up work during tax season for extra money.
“When I’m tired from working so much … sometimes (the students) don’t always get the best that I can give them,” Yarber said. “I want to do my best for them. Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to give it at that time.”
While some teachers struggle to stay afloat financially, Kinder said she has trouble not being drained by her job because a lot of her students are affected by extreme poverty and the opioid epidemic.
Students have slept through her class because they spend their weekends working jobs out of state and many of the students at her school don’t live with their parents, who may be addicted to drugs or in jail, she said.
“It’s kind of emotionally draining, because you have be ‘on’ so much,” Kinder said. “You have to be so encouraging all the time, because you might be the the one adult that day that is encouraging.”
Finding the local match
Russell County isn’t the lowest-paying locality in the state for teachers. That’s Tazewell County, about 35 miles away, where teachers make an average of $37,128 a year, according to data from the Virginia Education Association.
Earlier this year, Tazewell County had to cut $2.9 million from its budget, which affected how much it was able to give to the school system.
Tazewell’s schools leaders considered closing schools, cutting sports programs and implementing a meals tax to try to cover the shortfall.
They did none of those and retained the same number of staff, but had to scale back on their plans for teacher pay raises.
In Southwest Virginia, local funding for education fell along with the collapse of the coal mining industry, said James Puckett, a Russell County teacher and district president for the Virginia Education Association. He oversees a region that includes teachers from Lee County, at the border of Kentucky and Tennessee to Smyth County, about 60 miles from Radford.
Low teacher salaries aren’t limited to one region. In West Point, the average salary is $41,285 a year and in Lexington it is $41,192 a year. However, seven of the 10 lowest-paying districts are in Southwest or Southside Virginia.
“The counties are stretched very thin, they’re trying to patch many things together to take care of their things,” Puckett said. “Of course, whatever we get we’re very blessed.”
Puckett doesn’t see why Russell County teachers won’t get a raise this year. He said he hopes it’s a priority, because he knows plenty of teachers and staff look elsewhere. Yarber said, if not for owning her home, she would’ve left the county a long time ago.
“It’s just like dangling a bone in front of them,” Puckett said. “They’re going to take the higher offer.”
But there are other considerations for school district leaders when it comes to offering pay raises.
Northam’s proposal, like most state-initiated raises, will only cover standards of quality positions, or jobs the state has determined a school needs. Often, schools have more staff than the state has allocated.
If local districts picked up the cost of extra positions, localities have to find all the money to offer those teachers and staff a raise. It’s possible that Northam’s separate proposal to add $35 million to the at-risk add on — additional money given to schools with high concentrations of poverty — can be used for other initiatives, like smaller classes, and support staff, like nurses, psychologists and specialists, Perrigan said.
“It’d be very hard as superintendent to recommend a budget to the school board without giving a raise across the board,” he said.