Education agency’s turnover rate grows

More than 20 percent of employees quit job

? One in five employees left the state Department of Education over the past year, and some critics of Commissioner Bob Corkins are blaming him for the relatively high turnover rate.

But Corkins said Wednesday that such criticism is unjustified, adding that some of the turnover re-flects competition for personnel among the state and its 296 school districts.

The State Board of Education, which hired Corkins in October, received its annual report on employee turnover Tuesday. The report said 53 staff members – nearly 21 percent – voluntarily left the department during the state’s 2006 fiscal year, which ended June 30. Six retired and 47 resigned.

Board members who opposed Corkins’ hiring saw the turnover rate as a signal of turmoil within the agency since he became commissioner. His hiring, on a 6-4 vote, initially angered some educators because Corkins had not run a school or school district before.

They noted that about 10 percent of the department’s employees resigned or retired in fiscal 2005 – less than half the rate in fiscal 2006.

“I’m very concerned,” board member Janet Waugh, a Kansas City Democrat who opposed Corkins’ appointment, said Wednesday. “I think people are not happy, so they’re leaving.”

But board Chairman Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican, who supported Corkins’ appointment, said he’s not concerned because the department has been able to fill vacancies with talented applicants.

“We continue to do some great things here,” he said. “It’s not based on all one person.”

Corkins noted 18 employees who left did so before Oct. 1, and he wasn’t hired until Oct. 4. If anything, the turnover rate slowed after he took over, he said.

He later released figures showing the department’s turnover rate has varied since fiscal 2006. Though last year’s figure was the highest, turnover reached 17 percent in fiscal 1999.

Corkins noted school districts also are looking to fill high-level positions, and they compete with the state for personnel.

“We’re just all trading people,” he said.

Indeed, a state audit released Tuesday suggested some districts have trouble filling even teaching spots because of a shortage of qualified educators.

For example, the Legislative Division of Post Audit said, 17 percent of all special education positions in 2004-05 were either vacant or filled by a teacher who wasn’t fully qualified.

But it’s not a new trend. Educators and legislators have worried for at least a decade about teacher shortages and have been concerned the problem will become worse as teachers retire.

But Waugh said the fact that so many Education Department employees left during the last fiscal year is troubling because agency personnel often can earn more money working for a district but choose to stay with the state because they’re happy.

And the agency has lost some visible administrators. Former Deputy Commissioner Alexa Posny – passed over for the commissioner’s job – took a job with the U.S. Department of Education. Former spokesman David Awbrey left last month, citing the contentious political climate and family considerations.

Another former employee, Diane DeBacker, became an associate superintendent three weeks ago for the Shawnee Heights school district, east of Topeka. She said her desire to be closer to schools led her away from her job as director of school improvement for the education department.

She said Corkins’ appointment didn’t play into her leaving.

“I got along with him very well, and he treated me very well,” DeBacker told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “For me, that wasn’t a factor. For other people I think that it was.”