In his 20 years as the Dorchester District 2 superintendent, Joe Pye said he's never started the school year with a teacher vacancy.
But that could change in the fall.
"We're worried this could be the year we start school with openings," Pye told The Post and Courier. "Overall, the problem has gotten worse. We need to help recruit people for the profession."
A shortage of teachers is a national and statewide problem, and Charleston area school districts are in no way immune.
Pye's concerns are shared with neighboring districts in Berkeley and Charleston counties and come amid not only a statewide shortage in educators but also a national outcry by teachers seeking better pay and less mandatory testing.
On May 1, an estimated 10,000 teachers traveled to the Statehouse in Columbia to protest, march and speak for improved working conditions.
Their protest came after months of hearings and debate at the Statehouse, where lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster had vowed to overhaul the state’s education system. The recently approved state budget gave all teachers at least a 4 percent raise, with the youngest teachers receiving as much as a 10 percent raise as part of an effort to retain more of them.
For the upcoming school year, around 1,600 teachers in Dorchester County were offered contracts to return. A little more than 1,500 accepted. Currently, there are still an estimated 30 openings, Pye said.
Berkeley County School District had slightly more than 2,500 teachers in the 2018-19 school year, and the district lost nearly 300 that same year. For the upcoming school year, the district has hired an estimated 200 educators but still has a little more than 100 vacancies.
Shelley Greene, the employment coordinator and recruiter for BCSD, said their schools have lost teachers at a similar rate to last year.
"We're about at the same place we were last year," Greene said. "We don't panic until August 1."
To address the teacher shortage problem, the Charleston County School Board agreed to raise its base teacher pay to $40,000 a year in the 2020-21 school year. Many teachers received a 5.9 percent raise, said district spokesman Andy Pruitt.
Still, the district offered 3,255 certified teachers a 2019-20 contract, but only 2,954 had signed it by May 10. It's not pressing the panic button, however.
Pruitt said Bill Briggman, the district's chief human resources officer, said it's really too soon to determine if the district's teacher situation is getting better or worse. It will have a more full analysis of the cause and effects of teacher turnover by September, he added.
In 2018 alone, some 7,300 South Carolina teachers left their jobs before the current school year started, according to a Winthrop University study. More than 5,300 teachers in all left South Carolina’s public schools altogether.
State lawmakers have vowed to make fixing schools — and narrowing the teacher shortage — a top priority. Interest in an education overhaul has grown since The Post and Courier’s five-part “Minimally Adequate” series detailed broad disparities in the state’s education system that now threaten the state’s economic vitality.
School officials in the tri-county have identified a multitude of issues that lead to losing teachers.
In Dorchester, Pye said unfunded mandates from Columbia have impacted teacher salaries. As a result, he has noticed in the last two years that the district has lost some of its teachers to Charleston County, which pays more.
Pye said his priority is to bring the base teacher salary to at least $40,000 — the same pay rate Charleston schools have put in place. In a budget proposal, which will be voted on by Dorchester County Council later this month, he requested $2.3 million to increase pay.
Berkeley also shares similar concerns about losing its teachers to neighboring schools.
With a coverage area of more than 1,000 square miles, BCSD Human Resources Director Julie Rogers said some teachers leave the district because they can't travel to the more rural parts of the district like Ridgeville.
"We are trying very hard to keep up with Charleston County and Dorchester County in terms of schools being so close," Rogers said.
To keep teachers in the district and recruit more for rural schools, staff members who commute 20 miles or more to certain schools will receive an annual travel stipend that ranges from $1,600 to $2,400, depending on the distance.
While Pye said Dorchester's efforts have been useful in recruitment, the teacher retention issue also needs to be addressed statewide.
"These teachers can't live on the salaries we provide them," he said. "They need roommates or need to live with their boyfriends or girlfriends. We have to show them we care."
Robert Behre contributed to this report.