After a Difficult Year at AISD, 2,100 Staffers Are Leaving

Resignations are higher than ever

Overall staff departures have been climbing at AISD, with slightly more nonteaching staff leaving than teachers, though resignations for both groups have been climbing at a similar rate. Resignations and retirements in the 2021-2022 school year were 22% higher than in 2020-21, and nearly twice the number seen in 2019-20. (Source: Austin Independent School District)

On May 31, Austin ISD's last day of school, band director Ryan Thomas left Ridgetop Elementary for the last time. After 23 years teaching in Florida and Texas, Thomas resigned from his career in education in favor of a new job in desktop support, which he believes offers more growth potential. He's one of a record 2,106 staff members to depart during the 2021-22 school year (including pending resignations at the end of June), per current totals provided by the district's Office of Human Capital. That's 22% more than in 2020-21, and nearly twice the number in 2019-20. The enormous turnover has some remaining staffers in the district wondering how their campuses will function come next fall.

Thomas' decision came at the end of a difficult year. In September, Thomas was involuntarily transferred from Lively Mid­dle School to Ridgetop as part of "leveling," which moved teachers into open positions to save money on new hires. Thomas was also disheartened by the district's decision to limit time for art and music education in elementary schools in favor of daily PE classes. The district's semipermanent state of fiscal crisis has made such strategies commonplace, and Thomas agrees AISD is in a difficult place given the enormous recapture payments it's required to make to the state (which uses the funds to invest in "property-poor" districts).

But he believes AISD leaders could have made better decisions and alleviated the rising pressures that have led him and others to leave. Thomas said those decisions lowered his morale even more than the general chaos and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. "My last day was not a celebration for me," he said. Teaching is "what I always wanted to do, but I'm just kind of fed up with how I've been treated at AISD, and how my colleagues have been treated, and am just trying to find something else that would give me and my family work- life balance."

District spokesperson Christina Peña Nguyen says the spike in resignations at AISD is part of a trend throughout the Texas and U.S. labor markets, as millions of Americans decide to voluntarily leave their jobs. She also acknowledged lower teacher morale due to the pandemic. "This would be expected to have an outsized effect on staff departures, especially with a [National Education Association] poll showing 90% of its members feeling burnout and almost as many saying they've seen more of their colleagues quitting or retiring early during the pandemic than before," Nguyen wrote.

“My last day was not a celebration for me. … [Teaching is] what I always wanted to do, but I’m just kind of fed up with how I’ve been treated at AISD, and how my colleagues have been treated.” – Ridgetop Elementary’s Ryan Thomas

The wave of departures includes not only classroom teachers but also their administrators. Per the district's tally, 17 principals among AISD's 125 schools announced their resignation or retirement in the 2021-22 school year, which far exceeds the seven who left during the 2020-21 school year, or the 11 who left in 2019-20. The Northeast Schools vertical team – which represents Northeast Early College High School (the former Reagan High) and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it – accounts for a notable chunk of those departures. According to Allen Weeks, whose nonprofit Austin Voices for Education and Youth works closely with this cohort of schools, 9 of the 10 schools within the Northeast vertical team have seen a change in principals this school year. Three of those nine were fired, according to Weeks, who said this rate of turnover is unprecedented. He believes the Northeast exodus may have more to do with how the AISD Central Office treats the schools than with problems on the individual campuses, especially since the vertical team completed a three-year grant to build cohesion and partnerships at the end of 2021. "The vertical team has been working really closely together … It's a very cohesive bunch of professionals," Weeks said. "These are challenging neighborhoods, but it's not like people don't love their schools."

Nguyen said AISD is currently implementing a number of recruitment strategies, including incentives for teachers who give the district advance notice of their plans to resign or retire, and expanding the help available from international and student teaching programs. Likely, the most important long-term strategy will be new certification flexibilities allowed by the new AISD innovation plan. When it comes to filling vacancies in school administration, Nguyen said AISD's "Grow Your Own" programs are helping teachers and assistant principals interested in moving up with professional learning and mentoring.

Kyle Olson, who teaches at Northeast ECHS, worries those solutions alone won't work. "Districts around Austin are publicly announcing these very significant increases to base salary and our school district has yet to really kind of match that or offer something similar," Olson said. "My biggest fear is starting the year with multiple vacancies unfilled – that would result in more or less a long-term substitute being in a classroom. … It's problematic to assume that there would be one person willing to be a permanent sub on campus, or that could fill that role permanently."

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AISD, Austin ISD, COVID-19, fair wages, Christina Peña Nguyen

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