Working for the Scottsdale Unified School District was a no-brainer for first-grade teacher Sue Kaminskas. The graduate of Arcadia High School said she just felt at home staying in Scottsdale.
"It really was my home base," she said. "There was both the educational as well as the personal connection."
More than 30 years later, the first-grade teacher is now president of the district’s teachers union and finds herself in the middle of an East Valley battle to snag the best and brightest teachers.
Competition to win over teachers is heating up this year as school districts are no longer fighting deficits and expect more money than usual from the state.
That has led to many districts increasing their starting salaries this year to be more competitive with districts better known for their pay schedules.
In Scottsdale, teachers received as much as 6 percent increases in their base pay — a move that should help the district regain what had in the past been a teacher-drawing reputation, Kaminskas said.
"We want our salary schedule to be the best, and we want to keep the best," she said. "That’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time."
But salary is not the only inducement that districts use to attract teachers. Teachers often consider a variety of benefits school districts bring: Class sizes, age of schools and facilities, student test scores, teacher bonus programs, mentor programs and location.
Hundreds of teachers are still being interviewed and sought out for teaching positions for the coming school year, especially in fastergrowing districts in the far south East Valley.
Districts are holding local job fairs, posting national advertising and sending human resource personnel to neighboring states in their search for teachers — particularly in the math, science and special-education areas.
"What we’ve been doing is emergency certifying (specialeducation teachers) because there is such a shortage," said Joyce Cook, principal of Copper Ridge Elementary School in Scottsdale — who herself is heading to the Mesa Unified School District next school year.
The Gilbert Unified School District spent the past year studying area salaries and benefits before increasing its starting salary to almost $33,000 from last year’s $31,000. "We did a pretty extensive market analysis with our comparable school districts," assistant superintendent Nikki Blanchard said.
The district’s new schools and peer mentoring program also are attractive to teacher candidates, Blanchard said.
With teacher salaries making up a majority of the cost of running a district, school boards have to weigh salary schedules against the programs they offer, and class sizes.
"You have to weigh — do you want more people and pay them less," Blanchard said. "Or, do you look at less people and pay them more. That’s the age-old personnel issue."
In the Chandler Unified School District, teacher salaries have long been a priority for resident groups that help the district establish annual budgets. The district doesn’t provide art teachers for elementary schools — instead using parent volunteers — but uses a bulk of its budget to keep its salaries among the area’s highest.
The district boasts a modified year-round schedule that gives teachers longer spring and winter vacations, and, spokesman Terry Locke said, provides a salary schedule that allows teachers to move up quickly. A teacher with a master’s degree and 11 years of experience can earn $50,965 in Chandler, Locke said.
The Mesa district swoops in early to snag the best and brightest, said assistant superintendent Janice Ramirez.
Teachers are hired year round in "unassigned contracts" so that when an opening comes, they go right in to the job and aren’t out on the market, she said.
"I think salary and benefits are a big deal," Ramirez said. "But for the most part, districts in the East Valley are pretty comparable. One of the things I am told by people who hire from other districts in the Valley that attracts them to Mesa is we tend to have much more resources to offer teachers."
The Tempe Elementary School District often hires its student teachers when they graduate from college, already knowing their teaching style, said human resources director Chris Busch.
The district has had good response in hiring specialeducation teachers during the past year by distributing DVDs to education majors throughout the nation, said marketing director Gary Aungst. The district plans to create a DVD for general teachers for future recruiting efforts, he said.
"There are only so many highly qualified teachers to go around," Busch said. "So we’re all really pretty much competing with each other for those hard-to-fill positions."