A makeshift animal pen has been set up in a sliver of grass next to Bonneville Technical Careers High School. Chickens, pigs and two baby cows roam the area between the classroom and a decommissioned train car.
Inside, teacher Gregory Egan is overseeing dozens of students as they begin the day’s projects in the woodworking shop. Two months into his first year with Bonneville Joint School District, he’s already taken the first steps to launch the first Future Farmers of America program in Idaho Falls.
Egan previously was the 4-H and shop teacher at Clark County Junior/Senior High School in Dubois. Despite teaching at one of the smallest schools in the state, his 4-H chapter was named one of the 10 best in Idaho last year. But ultimately, he said, the resources and the abilities that District 93 offered led to him switching districts over the summer.
“I loved the kids that I was teaching, but I didn’t seem to get as much done as I would have liked to,” Egan said.
Egan is not alone in making the move from a small district to a larger one. Smaller, poorer districts can struggle to retain teachers when switching to a larger district can potentially mean thousands more in wages.
Last year, the average base salary for a teacher in Idaho Falls was $46,702 and the average in Bonneville was $45,804. Base salary averages in the Clark County, Madison, Ririe, Sugar-Salem and West Jefferson school districts were all at least $4,000 lower.
Records from the State Department of Education show that 496 new teachers arrived in Districts 91 and 93 since the 2014 school year. More than a quarter of those hires, 137 in total, were transfers from another school district in Idaho, with the majority coming from other schools in eastern Idaho. Including teachers who moved between the districts in Bonneville County, that number increases to 184 local teachers who changed districts within the state.
Egan said the higher pay wasn’t the only reason he left Clark County. He said there weren’t any houses for sale in Dubois and, even if there were, Egan said he would’ve had a hard time convincing his wife to move there. Instead, he drove 110 miles roundtrip from Rigby every day to teach during his two years at the high school.
He worked with nearly all of the 25 students at the high school. In contrast, one shop class at Technical Careers High School can have more than 30 students. His lengthy commute limited some of his ability to work with students on projects outside of school hours, as did the students’ needs to work or compete in sports after school.
“A bigger school brings more students and the potential for participation in events that you would not be able to do with a small school,” Egan said.
Of the two local districts, Bonneville has brought in the most teachers from other in-state districts in recent years. Ninety-two of the incoming teachers from other Idaho districts went to work for Bonneville and 45 switched to Idaho Falls School District.
Lisa Stewart graduated from Bonneville High School, and she’d been interested in returning to the district ever since she became a teacher. After teaching in Jefferson County Joint District for seven years and in Provo, Utah, for two more, she had a choice between Bonneville and Jefferson for her next position.
She said Bonneville ultimately won out because it could pay slightly more and her mother had taught in the district before her. She also preferred the smaller class sizes at Tiebreaker Elementary School to the ones she’d had at Jefferson Elementary School.
“When I was leaving Jefferson, I was on a teacher team of 10 people and now I’m on a team of 3. It makes it so much easier to make decisions and handle our classes,” Stewart said.
Jefferson County was the biggest source for teachers within the state for the local districts since 2014, with 13 relocating to Bonneville and two more to Idaho Falls. Madison and Pocatello school districts were the other two districts that had more than 10 teachers leave for Districts 91 and 93.
Of course, Idaho’s school districts aren’t only competing with each other to retain their staff. Teton School District loses most of its teachers across the state line to Teton County School District in Wyoming, where the average base salary was $73,000 last year and the state had no income tax.
To help increase what the district can pay teachers, Teton County residents have repeatedly voted to approve supplemental levies for the district. The levy has been renewed six times since it was first passed in 2008 and has provided an additional $19.6 million to District 401. Teton was the only school district in eastern Idaho last year with a higher average base salary than Idaho Falls at $47,500.
Teton School District Spokeswoman Jeanne Anderson said those supplemental levies have allowed the district to try to be competitive by paying teachers more than what the proposed career ladder would require.
“If we only had the base number of positions that the state funds and paid them without the supplemental levy, we would not be able to stay competitive,” Anderson said.
Teacher retention has been a major issue of concern among Idaho’s school districts and was a major talking point for the education taskforce put together by Gov. Brad Little this year. Several members of the taskforce were concerned that the disparate amounts that districts are able to pay their educators turned some of the smaller districts into pipelines that supplied their best teachers to bigger cities that could offer them more.
One of the goals of the proposed increase to the teacher salary ladder is to limit the effects of that pipeline within the state. The proposal being officially made by the education taskforce would increase the recommended salaries for experienced teachers to between $50,000 and $60,000. The base rung of the ladder was expanded to $40,000 earlier this year by the legislature.