Algebra teacher at North Charleston High

Algebra teacher Kelly Young helps freshman Alex Cornell during class last week at North Charleston High in this 2016 file photo. North Charleston High is one of 16 schools where the Charleston County School District is now offering a $9,000 salary boost to attract and retain math teachers. File/Staff

Charleston County Schools' chief human resources officer spotted the prospective math teacher across the room at a college job fair.

Berkeley County was hot on his heels, and the officer knew it.

"I felt like I had to chase him through the event at first to make sure I could talk to him," said Bill Briggman, who attended the teacher recruitment fair two weeks ago at Coastal Carolina University.

The next time he travels to recruit math teachers, Briggman can sweeten the deal. For math teaching positions at 16 high-poverty schools in Charleston County, the district now offers a base starting salary of $45,000 — about $9,000 more than the starting rate for other teachers in the district.

As with all public school teachers in South Carolina, math teachers who take up that offer will be eligible for annual salary increases, as well as additional pay if they earn postgraduate degrees.

The new pay scale, approved by the Charleston County School Board March 12, applies to new and current math teachers alike, and district leaders hope the money will help retain quality math teachers in schools that have historically faced near constant teacher turnover.

According to Briggman, Charleston County Schools lost nearly half of its math teachers over the last two school years. Unable to hire replacements fast enough, the district has used long-term substitutes and math teaching coaches to fill vacancies. It's even paying some math teachers extra money to teach additional classes during their planning periods.

That sort of churn is hardly unique.

Teacher vacancies have risen across the state, according to South Carolina's Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement. CERRA's latest annual report found that 4,900 teachers from the 2016-17 school year were no longer teaching in any South Carolina school district, and half of the teachers who left their posts had fewer than five years of experience.

As teachers leave the profession, citing low pay, lack of support and back-breaking assessment loads, in-state teacher colleges are not keeping up with demand. One oft-cited CERRA report predicts that South Carolina will have a 527-teacher shortfall by 2027 in math positions alone. The report also forecasts massive shortfalls in science, social studies and special education.

As this year's April deadline approaches for teaching contracts, school districts are scrambling to lure increasingly rare teachers.

Some of the largest districts have begun a bidding war. Two weeks after Charleston County Schools openly considered raising base teacher pay to $40,000, Horry County Schools' board chairman said he'd like to do the same.

Last week, Charleston County Schools earned state approval to launch its own three-year alternative certification program for teachers, becoming the second district after Greenville County Schools to take that route.

Some smaller districts have gotten a boost from a state fund called the Rural Recruitment Incentive. In Allendale County, where most teachers drive to work from outside the county, the local school district has used those funds to pay mileage reimbursements. Cherokee County Schools put the money toward a $10,000 signing bonus that made headlines last year.

For Todd Garrett, chairman of the Charleston County School Board's Audit and Finance Committee, money isn't a cure-all for what ails South Carolina schools.

While he voted for the math teacher pay bump, he said he worries that one-time signing bonuses in other counties ultimately could encourage teachers to jump from district to district.

Once a district hires a math teacher, the next trick is convincing her to stay.

"It’s not just a carrot that brings you here," said Charleston County School Board member Michael Miller. "We want to be able to sustain that."

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.