141 teachers and other certified staff resigned from Lawrence district this year; budget uncertainty, workload, pay and other issues cited

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence Public Schools district offices pictured in April 2021.

The number of teachers who have resigned from the Lawrence school district has increased by more than 2.5 times since the 2019-2020 school year, with 141 teachers and other certified staff deciding to leave their positions this year.

By comparison, only 55 teachers and other certified staff resigned in the 2019-2020 school year, while 101 teachers resigned in the 2020-2021 school year, according to data from the district. Noting national trends, School Board Vice President Shannon Kimball said while she didn’t think the district was alone in such challenges, the trend was still concerning.

“Obviously, as a school board member, I am extremely concerned about the overall trends across the profession,” Kimball said. “It’s been obvious to those of us who’ve been paying attention for the last several years that we are approaching a crisis in the teaching profession that the pandemic has exacerbated.”

Kristen Ryan, executive director of human resources, previously told the school board that uncertainties surrounding budget cuts to staffing positions contributed to an increase in resignations. The Lawrence school board recently approved $6.4 million in budget cuts, due in part to declining enrollment, which included the elimination of 72 teaching positions. Other reasons Ryan cited were salary, job satisfaction, workload, leadership and relocation.

And as teachers leave, fewer are interested in taking their place. Though the Lawrence district does not specifically track applications from year to year, Human Resources staff reports receiving fewer applications this year as school districts compete for a smaller pool of applicants.

Lindsay Buck, the president of the local teachers’ union, the Lawrence Education Association, agreed that uncertainty surrounding budget cuts has contributed to resignations, as has compensation for teachers. For example, Buck said even though the board did not end up cutting as many librarians and learning coaches as initially proposed, she said some ultimately chose to leave anyway once they saw their positions “on the chopping block.”

“And so, as a result, we’re seeing those jobs pop up as open, because when you feel like you don’t have job security because your position is being considered as a cut, obviously you’re going to try to look elsewhere to keep yourself employed,” Buck said.

However, Buck said that national and state trends also play a significant role. Buck said even after schools supposedly went back to “normal” after being remote because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers still had a lot to contend with as students returned to the classroom. On top of that, Buck said some teachers take on second jobs to make ends meet — a 2019 NEA survey found that nearly a third of new teachers took on a second job.

And in Kansas, Buck said teachers also have to deal with the stress of having their profession attacked and questioned by some at the Statehouse, with proposals such as the so-called Parental Bill of Rights, proposed restrictions on transgender athletes, and vouchers to funnel money away from public schools. All things considered, she said some teachers who were “hanging by a thread” are leaving the profession.

“Anecdotally, I know of so many people who I know would have stayed in education — and some of them were leaders in our union — who are leaving the profession,” Buck said. “I think it’s incredibly telling when you have really fierce, dedicated public education advocates who are saying, ‘This is too much; I can’t do it anymore.'”

A National Education Association survey from this year indicated that 55% of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned. Other data points to fewer students going into the education field.

However, Buck said there are actions that can be taken at the state and local levels. In the midst of its budget struggles, the district recently proposed a 1.8% funding increase for teacher salaries for next year. Buck said compensation will “always come out at number one,” and if pay in Kansas does not keep up with inflation, teachers and other staff are essentially taking a pay cut. She said emphasis should fall on state lawmakers, who by taking actions such as fully funding special education could make a big difference for all districts.

“It is easy at the local level to target and blame the district, but honestly what really needs to happen is we need to have a united front across the state of Kansas to the state Legislature,” Buck said. “Because that’s the only way that things are going to improve for our local school districts, is that the Legislature hears us loud and clear that we are in a workforce shortage crisis and that we need the funding to help get us through.”

In addition, Buck said easing teacher workloads is key, including protecting teachers’ planning time, as well as being mindful about the level of teacher training, student assessments and other duties that are expected. In the end, Buck said teacher turnover is not good for students, and neither is a teacher who feels undervalued and overburdened.

For her part, Kimball recognized what the district was up against. She noted a recent Gallup poll that indicated that teachers have reported the highest level of burnout of any profession that was surveyed, with 44% saying they “always” or “very often” feel burned out at work. Locally, she said the top concerns she’s been hearing from teachers have been budgetary uncertainty, workload and pay.

When it comes to addressing those issues, Kimball said she was proud that the district adopted a strategic plan four years ago that included recruitment and retention as a priority. She said the board should continue its efforts to improve wages and benefits and also be very mindful of the tasks put on teachers’ plates with new initiatives and other changes.

“We have got to take care of the people that we have and support them and encourage them to stay with us, because we need them,” Kimball said.


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