Almost all newcomers to Bethel have to find their own housing, a challenge for someone who’s never been here. This year, the Lower Kuskokwim School District offered transitional housing for some first-year teachers in Bethel, a move that some school board members didn’t think was fairly implemented. The district administration explained that the alternative would have been fewer teachers.
Director of Personnel Josh Gill delivered some bad news at the last LKSD school board meeting: they still had 10 open positions, and it was almost December.
“In my five years in this position, I would say this is one of the largest numbers that I’ve had at this time of year,” Gill said.
But Gill said that there could have been even more open positions, specifically in Bethel. That’s because even after teachers agreed to come to Bethel, some of them couldn’t find housing.
“We had people signing up and turning us down for jobs in Bethel,” described LKSD Superintendent Dan Walker.
Back in July, the district offered transitional housing to nine teachers who still needed a place to live. School board member Michael Husa thought it was unfair not to offer it to all first-year Bethel teachers.
“What message did we send to those 21 other teachers?” Husa asked.
Another board member, Raymond “Thor” Williams, had an issue with both the $48,000 used to subsidize the housing and the way that it was authorized.
“Why didn’t you come back to the board and ask for funding for this?” Williams asked.
Walker said that he made an emergency decision to prevent a worse situation.
“We had a choice,” Walker said. “Do we have six or seven open positions at BRHS and other places, or do we spend $40,000 or $50,000 to have some transitional housing?”
Gill said that the difficulty filling teaching positions is a statewide issue. He described thousands of candidates attending Alaska Teacher Placement fairs back in the 1990s. Last year, he said that there were only 153.
“The heydays where there were just massive pools of people are gone,” Gill said.
Gill says that one of the factors LKSD could control is competitive pay. He says that teacher salaries have increased dramatically in the lower 48 in recent years as the economy there has boomed.
“For it to go up as much as it has is pretty amazing, and it’s something we have to look at as a district,” Gill said.
But more important, Walker says, is Alaska's teacher retirement benefits, which now pale in comparison with those of other states.
Gill says that there is still an incentive for new teachers: “It’s the idea of coming to Alaska.” But then, Gill says, teachers fill up on Alaskan adventure after a few years and go back home, and the district has to find another young teacher to continue that cycle.
For now, the Bethel teaching positions are filled and Gill says that some of the other open positions in the district are staffed by itinerant teachers. He will continue attending fall job fairs and try to fill the remaining teaching positions by January.