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Many school districts across Alabama are working to find funding to keep teaching positions that will no longer be funded by the state in the upcoming school year.

This year’s education budget, which is the largest in state history, does add an additional 305 “teacher units,” or teaching positions, compared to 2022. But, that increase does not make up for the downward trend in the years before that. The 2023 budget includes 225 fewer teacher units than 2021. It includes 303 fewer teacher units than 2018.

The state provided districts with stabilization funds last year, which helped avoid layoffs. School administrators say they’re feeling the hit more this year, and working to allocate federal or local funds to help save the jobs and manage class sizes.

Take the Chilton County School system, for example, which has lost 11.55 state-funded teaching positions over the last two years. Every principal in the district is choosing to use its federal money to keep close to the same number of teachers they had in place last year.

 “We are lucky for all 12 of our schools to be Title One schools because it does give them another source of revenue to be able to hire teachers,” said Ashlee Harrison, Director of Teaching and Learning for Chilton County Schools. “…If we can lower our class size, that’s where we see the biggest impact when you’re able to give the teachers more one-on-one time with the students in their classroom.”

Some school districts are losing state-funded teacher units because the budget uses a formula based on enrollment. Since 2018, enrollment in Alabama’s K-12 public schools is down by 10,449 students.

Alabama’s Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget has grown substantially over that same six-year period. This year, state legislators approved an $8.3 billion dollar ETF. Since 2018, state funding for K-12 has grown by $767 million. A large portion of the increase will fund teacher pay raises.

Alabama State Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey has recommended state lawmakers change a part of the teacher unit formula, which would have increased the number of state-funded teachers. But lawmakers did not accept that recommendation this year.

“In the four years I’ve been here, we have recommended lowering the divisors which would give us more teachers and fewer students per classroom,” Mackey told 1819 News. “I believe that’s one of the things we really have to do to affect both the teacher shortage, workforce burnout. A lot of the issues we’re talking about with students are simply, they need more one-on-one attention so the smaller we can make classroom sizes, the better off we are.”

State legislators set the grade divisors each year, which are used with enrollment numbers to determine the amount of teaching positions funded. The divisors have not been changed since 2020 when a small modification was made.

Many educators tell 1819 News they’d like to see more of the new revenue help fund more teacher units and reduce class sizes. But for now, they’re getting creative to try to save positions with the money they have.

Local school districts use federal or local funds to save some teaching positions

Chilton County has 186 fewer students enrolled than two years ago. That enrollment drop means 11.55 fewer teaching positions will be funded by the state.

Harrison said those teachers are still needed in Chilton County.

“The need is definitely still there,” Harrison said. “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about the Literacy Act. On the K-3 side, we’re doing more to actually try to reduce our class size so we can do more impact on the student achievement in K-3, and make sure those students are getting everything they need to be proficient in reading by the end of third grade.”

Chilton County does not use local funds for teacher units, but it is using flexibility in federal funds to help save most of the positions no longer funded by the state. It can tap into both Title One funding and also Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, which many districts receive from the federal government to help with learning loss from COVID-19.

“We always use federal funds toward teaching units first in our district because that’s where we think the biggest difference can be made,” Harrison said.

But, there is a tradeoff for that.

“When you’re spending your federal money, Title One money, on teaching units, obviously the resources you normally would be able to pour into the classroom, you’re not able to spend it there,” Harrison said.

Bibb County Schools lost 14.34 state-funded teacher units over the last two years. Superintendent Duane McGee says his county also does not have local funds to cover teaching positions. His principals are choosing to use their federal funds to save some of the jobs.

“Most principals will tell you, the more teachers they can have in their building the better,” McGee said.

Most Bibb County principals are using federal funding from Title One to fund at least one teacher in their school. Federal ESSER money is also being used to fund teachers.

“The ESSER money, it’s one of the things where in the back of my mind I have to keep reminding some of our principals, you can kick this can down the road for another year or two,” McGhee said. “When the ESSER money runs out, you’re going to have to non-renew a lot of people.”

Jefferson County Schools lost 46.7 teacher units over the last two years.

“Even though we saw a drop in units between FY 21 and FY 22, we were not laying people off last year because the state gave us stabilization funds,” Jefferson County Superintendent Dr. Walter Gonsoulin said. “For FY 23, those stabilization funds go away. However, even though we are down compared to FY 21, that decrease in units is more manageable through normal attrition and local funding. We actually have spots to fill at this point.”

More affluent school districts have more local funds to retain and hire teachers.

In Mountain Brook, where families pay the highest millage rate in the state, class sizes are smaller. In 2022, local money funded an additional 112 teachers for Mountain Brook City Schools, in addition to the 254.08 funded by the state, and 13 funded federally.

“The property tax earmarked for education that the Board of Education receives makes a huge difference in the number of teachers we are able to have, and more teachers equates to teachers being able to spend more time and attention on each student’s learning and progress,” Superintendent Dr. Dicky Barlow said.

Barlow added that there are two major reasons he prioritizes more teachers in his budget: “class size and opportunity. We know the number of students in the class can affect student learning.”

Teacher Unit Formula

Alabama’s formula to determine the number of teacher units funded is calculated using each school’s average daily enrollment, measured in the first 20 days after Labor Day each year. 

The number of teacher units is set by dividing the school’s enrollment by a “grade divisor.”

Here are the grade divisors legislators approved in this year’s budget:

o   The grade divisor for K-3 is 14.25.

o   For grades 4-6, the grade divisor is 20.43.

o   For grades 7-8, the grade divisor is 19.7.

o   For grades 9-12, the grade divisor is 17.95.

The last change to a divisor was in 2020. The divisor for grades four through six was lowered from 21.03 to 20.43.

“We really need to, over time, try to lower those numbers so we can have smaller class sizes,” Mackey told 1819 News.

“There are many of us superintendents and principals alike that do not understand why the middle school age, the divisors are the (highest),” said Dr. McGee, Superintendent in Bibb County. “…. The divisor formula for 6th, 7th ,8th grades puts bigger class sizes on teachers.”

Mackey said grade divisors can be misleading because a divisor does not necessarily equate to a similar class size.

“If a divisor is 24… that doesn’t mean you have 24 students in a class,” Mackey said. “Because that divisor includes PE teachers, special education teachers, career tech teachers, lots of teachers. So, you might end up in a middle school classroom having 32, 33. I’ve actually seen where we have 35, 36 kids in a classroom. Well, that’s too many for the teacher to provide that kind of individualized instruction.”

Mackey explained grade divisors are set annually in the budget. He says the reduction in grade divisors he recommended this year would have added about 3,200 teachers. Legislators did not accept that recommendation.

“Right now, there is a teacher shortage,” Mackey said. “So, I had some legislators who asked me in a very polite way - we have a good relationship with legislators, and they said, ‘look,  we have so much money. If we put money into lowering the divisors, where are you going to find those teachers? We’re already short several hundred teachers.’ And I said, ‘that’s true. If you fully funded the request in one year, we would be like, holy smokes! Where are we going to find these teachers?’ But the point is, over time we want to see more teachers, especially in the middle grades.”

“It would be nice, like this year with all of the extra money that was in the budget, because the Alabama economy is so strong right now, it would have been nice if they changed the divisors this year and brought the number down so that we might could have a few more middle school teachers,” McGee said.

Teacher Pay Raises

With increased revenue, this year Alabama lawmakers did approve the largest teacher pay raise in a generation.

Mackey said those raises are already helping to address the teacher shortage.

Raises will range from 4% to 21%, based on years of classroom experience. Minimum salaries are also going up, based on types of degrees.

Teachers with less than nine years of classroom experience will get a 4% raise.

Teachers with nine years of experience or more will see raises ranging from 5% to 21%.

“The new teacher pay raises is going to make a huge difference,” Mackey said. “We already saw the number of people retiring this summer is at its lowest rate since, I think, 2014. So, it obviously has convinced people, literally dozens and dozens of teachers, to stay in the profession and that’s going to be good for us because we get those veteran teachers who have years of experience staying around, sticking with it.”

Mackey said long term, Alabama still needs to bring in more new, young teachers to fill the roles as the veterans retire.

Where else is the money going?

This year, state legislators approved an $8.3 billion dollar Education Budget, the largest in state history. $5.6 billion, or 68% of that, was allocated for K-12 education. Another 25% was allocated for higher education. Nearly $59 million was allocated for other expenses.

Teacher pay raises will mean more money is spent on salaries. $2.8 billion will be spent on salaries in FY23. That’s $194 million more than last year.

More money will also be spent on benefits including retirement and health insurance. Fringe benefits will increase by $50 million this year.

School districts will see increases in other line items, too.

The FY23 budget allocates $900 per educator for student materials, a $200 increase over last year. That change will cost the state an additional $9.7 million.

It also includes an increase in a line item called, “Other Current Expenses,” which is the category that offers school systems the most flexibility. The budget includes an additional $29.2 million for this.

“It’s used to keep the lights on, buy the toilet paper, clean the floors,” McGee said about how the money is used in Bibb County. He says the flexibility in that line item does allow it to be spent on more teachers, but that generally there is not enough money left for that.

Student Enrollment

While enrollment is dropping in some districts, it is increasing in others.

In Trussville for example, student enrollment is growing each year.

But overall, enrollment is down across the state. Alabama’s K-12 Public Schools are expecting 10,449 fewer students in the upcoming year, compared to 2018.

“That is simply a demographic shift,” said Mackey. “It’s something we’ve seen in Alabama. Compare that to the census data, you’ll just see we have fewer young people.”

He said Alabama has more than 20 counties that continue to see a decline in population.

“I talked to my friends in private schools,” Mackey said. “We’ve had more than a dozen private schools that have had to close in that same five-six years because there just aren’t children. They can’t sustain them anymore. So, we’re seeing it across the board. There just aren’t as many children.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email lauren.walsh@1819News.com.

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