A rural school district in the British Columbia Interior has filled a shortfall of teachers with help from an anonymous benefactor who donated $200,000 to welcome new educators.
At a time when schools across the province are struggling with staff recruitment and retention, the Gold Trail School District offered $10,000 incentives to attract new teachers, and $15,000 for those who agreed to move to the small town of Lytton which was devastated by fire two years ago.
Superintendent Teresa Downs says all 18 vacancies this year have been filled by the district, which manages eight small schools ranging in size from three to 350 pupils, with a total enrollment of 1,100. Thirteen new teachers qualified for the extra cash, and unused funds could go to future hires, Downs said.
Last year there was a shortfall of about 22 teaching staff, representing about 20 per cent of staff.
"So, we were unable to have any of our non-enrolling positions like teacher-counsellor or inclusion specialist filled, and there were times when we didn't have classrooms filled," Downs said of last year's staff shortage.
"And so, it meant that there was a profound impact on the morale of all of the staff here in the district, but also on, I think, the confidence that our communities and families had in the services we were offering their children."
The recruitment bonuses, which the district calls "welcome to the community awards," were focused on bringing teachers to the small communities of Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Clinton, Lillooet and Lytton.
"It's night and day on how I feel personally (relative to last year) and the sense that I'm getting as I visited schools this week, there is a tangible difference in morale," Downs said in an interview last week.
"There just seems to be far more optimism in the year that we are going to have and how we will be able to serve students to our best."
The money was distributed through the group Community Futures Sun Country. Its general manager, Linsie Lachapelle, said the anonymous donor wanted their donation to go toward economic development and had agreed with the group's suggestion to use it to attract teachers.
"They just had heard about the struggles we've had, basically everyone is having, retaining teachers. There's a shortage everywhere," she said.
Lachapelle said the money is being given to teachers in instalments and while there's no requirement for them to stay beyond the year, it's hoped they will grow to love the small communities and remain for the long term.
When asked if there were concerns about a district having to rely on a donation to attract staff, the Ministry of Education and Child Care issued a statement acknowledging "shortages across the entire public sector in a variety of key positions, including in B.C.’s K-12 education system."
The statement says the government announced a $12.5 million investment to support the recruitment and retention of teachers in rural and northern districts, as well as Indigenous teachers.
"Part of this funding has been established to support the implementation of hiring incentives to assist school districts with their hiring needs for hard-to fill positions in rural and remote schools," it says.
"So far, we are hearing that these incentives are making a difference to recruit teachers and fill vacancies for September in school districts like Kamloops-Thompson and Vancouver Island West."
In a statement, BC Teachers' Federation president Clint Johnston said the federation understands "the frustration felt in communities that do not have a sufficient number of teachers, and we share that frustration."
He said a recent sample survey of its members found 80 per cent reported feeling direct impacts from the teacher shortage.
"From the BCTF’s perspective, when it comes to issues affecting teachers’ terms and conditions of employment, including salary and signing bonuses, it is important for these issues to be negotiated with the union as the bargaining agent for all teachers in the province," the statement says.
Downs said using private donations to attract teachers "shows the complexity of this public education system."
"What I think that donation says to me, is the strength of rural communities," she said.
"That schools in rural settings are really often the hub and the heart of the community, and that every community member knows the value of the school, whether they have children or family members in it or not."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023
Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press