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Amid teacher shortage, OPS floats $4,500 stipend for full-time staff for next 2 years

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Many Omaha school districts are losing 30-70% more educators than last year — at least 1,250 are leaving their districts. Teachers say it's because of working conditions that aren't improving.

Faced with a continuing staff shortage, Omaha Public Schools officials Wednesday announced a plan to temporarily boost pay for district employees.

The pay increase proposal, which would apply to all certified and classified full-time and part-time staff for the next two years, follows an exodus of teachers that occurred last month. Some employees cited poor working conditions that weren’t improving.

Under the district’s proposal, which will go before the school board for approval Monday, certified and classified full-time staff would receive an additional $4,500 per year, while part-time staff would receive an additional $2,250 per year provided they work 20 or more hours a week.

The raises require approval by the school board and the Nebraska Department of Education, since the money will come from federal COVID-19 relief, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER). Because ESSER funds expire in 2024, the proposed stipends would be limited to the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years.

Superintendent Cheryl Logan said at a Wednesday press conference that the district would move money from its ESSER plan for long-term facilities maintenance to cover the new stipends. The stipends, if approved, would be distributed in three installments throughout the school year.

“Those needs are not disappearing, but we see the time-sensitive need to invest in our current staff, our returning staff,” Logan said. “This acknowledges the additional needs and challenges of this time.”

The district received 594 certified staff resignations and retirements as of May 19, according to a media release. That is a more than 43% increase from last year, when OPS only had 415 resignations and retirements.

Logan said the district also plans to meet with the Omaha Education Association to discuss compensation for teachers covering for others during their planning period.

Robert Miller, OEA president, said he was pleased to see the district recognize the work of all staff members and their dedication to students.

“It’s a great start and we look forward to working together to address the various concerns within the classrooms and buildings,” he said.

OPS, like other districts in the metro area and beyond, has struggled to retain staff during the pandemic.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Logan said she expects there to be about 230 unfilled positions when the 2022-23 school year starts. She did not know the exact number of unfilled positions in previous years but said it is in the “three-digit range.”

The district will be reorganizing classes within schools to help with the staff shortage, which will result in some larger class sizes, Logan said.

“Some students will not notice a change in their classroom,” Logan said. “For others, the number of students could change from two to five students.”

One OPS teacher said she feels the move is a great start for teachers to feel appreciated, but she hopes the district doesn’t stop there. The teacher spoke on the condition that The World-Herald withhold her name due to concerns it could impact her job.

“It is something, but we still need support from administration, and most importantly, parents. We want your child to be the best he or she can be,” she said. “For them to be successful, they need to be read to, know manners and not argue with teachers.”

Logan said the district will be taking on a “herculean effort” to establish in-depth relationships with families to help with student misbehavior. This could include in-home visits that staff would be compensated for, she said.

“One of the key things that we want to happen this year is to deepen those family relationships and to ensure we have common expectations for student behavior in the classroom,” she said. “Last year when we started school, I talked to (superintendents) about student behavior last fall. No one anticipated what we were faced with.”

Candice Balkovic, who resigned from Lewis and Clark Middle School in January, said she wondered why the district decided to offer stipends now instead of earlier in the year.

“When we looked at where we were in terms of our needs, that’s where we landed,” Logan said when asked about the timing. “We did 70 input sessions and took the information from our input sessions to create our initial budget.”

Balkovic said the new stipend won’t make her return to OPS.

“I’m in a new position where I make $20,000 more with a cost of living increase and bonuses coming every July, so $4,500 extra ... nope,” she said. “That stipend amount is the amount many companies give employees as a bonus regularly.”

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