In this rural Massachusetts school district, teacher retention is low due to budget-related layoffs, superintendent says

A low teacher retention rate at Orange is just one of the realities of the challenges of rural education, according to Superintendent Elizabeth Zielinski.

Among K-6 schools in Orange, there was a teacher retention rate of 72.1%, meaning that 31 of the 43 teachers stayed from year to year. This is a decrease from the previous year, when 37 of 42 teachers were retained, a rate of 88.1%, according to data from the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Layoffs are the reason the rate is so low, according to Zielinski, who said nine staff members have been made redundant and a few have retired.

“The city cannot afford an education because we are in a rural area,” Zielinski said.

The state’s Chapter 70 formula does not provide enough support to rural communities, Zielinski said, especially with special education and transportation.

“Funding assumes, the way the formula is written, that the maximum percentage of students who would have an IEP would be around 17% and that rural districts are generally higher because we have less population. Where we are is actually rural poverty, ”Zielinski said. “And so, you have a higher rate of impoverished areas of students with special needs.”

It costs more to transport children to school because the area has more miles to travel to get students to buildings, complicated by the number of dirt roads that still exist in the area, Zielinski said.

“The reason we have such low retention is that to make it feasible and affordable for cities, because I serve multiple cities, we had to cut staff because the city can’t afford it,” said Zielinski. “Because what chapter 70 does not cover, the cities must be reconciled. “

Orange Elementary Schools are part of Ralph C. Mahar & School Union District 73, which serves students in Orange, Petersham, New Salem and Wendell.

The DESE staff retention rate displays the percentage of superintendents, principals or teachers who continue to hold the same position from year to year. The data includes an unduplicated state total, which represents unique individuals who remain in the same job classification anywhere in the state from year to year. There is also a State Running Total, which displays the aggregate totals of staff retained with the same district or school.

For the state total not duplicated, 70,358 of the 77,659 teachers were retained, or 90.6%. Among managers, 88.8% were retained, or 1,676 out of 1,888. And for superintendents, the retention rate was 85.3%, at 295 out of 346.

The state’s cumulative total showed an 88.4% retention rate among teachers, with 68,779 of the 77,781 remaining in the same district. Among school principals, 1,647 out of 1,889 were retained, or 87.2%. And 325 of the 400 superintendents remained in the neighborhood, a rate of 81.3%.

The lowest teacher retention rate in Massachusetts was 13% in City on a Hill Charter Public School Circuit Street (District), which retained three of 23 teachers.

Across Massachusetts, some districts were able to retain all or most of their teachers from year to year. The Massachusetts Academy for Math and Science and the districts of Pelham and Wellfleet have seen these perfect teacher retention rates, according to DESE data.

At Orange, staff layoffs have resulted in increased class sizes, a challenge during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Zielinski said.

Zielinski said she and other local officials were advocating for more funding, working with State Senators Joanne Comerford and Adam Hinds, and writing letters to Governor Charlie Baker. Other rural school districts have experienced the same difficulties.

“We are small. We want to be able to offer everything we can offer, ”said Zielinski.

At the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School, which serves grades 7 to 12 in the district, 57 of 74 teachers were successful, a rate of 77%. The year before, that rate was 87.5%, according to state data. The school laid off eight employees last year, Zielinski said.

For the current school year, the district has had to eliminate college sports and cut high school sports, Zielinski said.

“Not everyone was happy, but at the end of the day you can only spend what you have,” Zielinski said. “Rural communities are really struggling to make ends meet in the Western Mass. “

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