Local districts interested but unsure about prospect of Career Ladder program

Plans to pay teachers more are still up in the air in Missouri.

Lawmakers largely agree, across the aisle, that they'd like to see more money in teachers' pockets. However, the means to that end has been the subject of much debate.

In the last few weeks, the Missouri House of Representatives approved a plan to funnel approximately $37 million to the Missouri Career Ladder Program, an incentive program that pays teachers for extra duties like supervising a club. The state hasn't funded the program since 2010, although some districts have continued the program and paid only their share of the incentive.

The funding has been redirected from the governor's initial teacher pay plan, which would have spent nearly $22 million in lottery funds on 70/30 matching grants for local school districts to bring up their base teacher pay to $38,000. Lawmakers and local school administrators worried about resulting wage compression and forgotten veteran teachers, and the house budget committee decided to shelve the governor's plan and send the money to Career Ladder.

Following legislative discussions about reviving Career Ladder, the News Tribune reached out to local districts to ask about their past participation in the program and their interest in the program if it were to restart.

Some administrators aren't familiar with the program, since it hasn't been funded since 2010, and even before that, it wasn't universal.

Superintendent Perry Gorrell, of Cole R-1 in Russellville, said he'd never worked in a district that participated in Career Ladder, though he'd heard Russellville had participated in the past. Gorrell said the district could be open to the possibility of participating in the future.

"Anytime that the state is going to provide funding that will help support our teachers, you have to make sure that you're doing your due diligence and research it, but ultimately you have to look at the overall cost to the district," Gorrell said.

Gorrell said the Legislature needs to consider all teachers.

"They're going to have to make a hard reflection. ... We do Career Ladder, but we're asking teachers to do more (now) when they're already doing a lot. ... And then we're going to add to the base, make minimum teacher salaries, but then not address our veteran teachers," Gorrell said. "At the end of the day, they just need to address teacher salaries across the board. That's what they need to do."

Gorrell said he wants to limit the "hoops" teachers have to go through.

"Just pay them for what they're worth. And they're worth every penny that they get paid," he said.

Cole R-5 of Eugene participated in Career Ladder years ago and Superintendent Charley Burch said the district would "very much like to participate should it be brought back."

"The challenge we face is finding the funding for the district to support their portion. Cole County R-5's operating levy is one of the lower levies in the area and we are maximized already in terms of having the funds to operate, so it will make it a challenge to find the funds," Burch said.

He added the plan was still in flux since the Senate could decide to reinstate a similar initiative to the governor's proposed pay plan.

Overall, he said, "It would help our district fund Career Ladder if the State would increase the amount of funds paid per ADA (Average Daily Attendance) and fully fund transportation."

"If this program was revived we would certainly evaluate to determine whether we would participate," said Ryan Burns, Jefferson City School District's communications director. Blair Oaks School District agreed.

When the state was considering cutting funding for Career Ladder in 2009, Superintendent Jim Jones, of Blair Oaks, submitted a letter to the budget committee explaining how the program had positively affected its students.

"A number of school programs have been initiated through Career Ladder that have contributed to the overall development of our students. Elementary Fine Arts has been one such program. Drama has become an educational opportunity for elementary students that would not have been available without Career Ladder. Engagement of students in the political process through leadership groups has been strengthened with Career Ladder," Jones wrote.

After state cuts, Blair Oaks began phasing out its Career Ladder plan, dropping the pay by 40 percent to account for the lost state funding and not accepting new participants. The district continues to pay nine teachers through the program with local funding and will pay them until they leave the district, Jones said.

Prior to the funding cuts, the district had about 30 teachers participating in the program.

Jones said as the district looked at trimming the program after cuts, it looked at "student contact hours" as valuable parts to hold on to, including tutoring, remediation and enrichment.

"We didn't want the students to be collateral damage of a situation that they didn't create, and some of the support mechanisms that occur because of Career Ladder. We didn't want them to be discontinued because of the lack," Jones said.

While the district cut hours and pay, it maintained some of those "critical" services. Current Career Ladder participants help with drama, student council and tutoring.

Jones said if state funding for Career Ladder were reinstated, the district would consider participating. He said the district would have to consider the cost to the district and whether those funds could be better used elsewhere to benefit all teachers.

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