The teacher retention problem at Page Unified School District is concerning, complicated, and clouded with discrepancies. At the center of it all is the man hired to fix it. The Chronicle spoke with PUSD Superintendent Larry Wallen last week. The interview covered various topics, everything from caulking leaky windows, finances, curriculum, teaching methods, housing, and teacher resignations.
The Chronicle also spoke with teachers, past, present, and recently resigned. While some accounts align, some don't. Even where there is agreement, there are gray areas, opposing nuances, and in some areas, lack of clarity. The common denominator is a concern for the children and their education.
Wallen was well-prepared for the hour and a half interview. In the meeting, he had charts, statistics, documents. Public relations coordinator Steven Law was also at the recorded meeting.
The "Sleepy Wallen" photos
Before the recorder was turned on, Wallen talked about his two-month battle with COVID-19 and said he's a COVID long-hauler. According to the American Medical Association, "For COVID long-haulers, persistent symptoms often include brain fog, fatigue, headaches, dizziness and shortness of breath, among others."
When Wallen left the hospital, his oxygen levels would sometimes drop, briefly causing unconsciousness. The first time this happened to him was during a Zoom meeting with teachers and school administrators. According to Wallen, a screen shot was taken, shared with the public, and found its way to the "Sleepy Wallen" posters carried by citizen and parent protestors.
Wallen now needs supplemental oxygen to maintain proper oxygen levels. He said this allows him to do his job and safely commute back and forth to work. During the late afternoon interview, Wallen appeared quick, alert and focused.
The Chronicle attended a Stand up for Page Unified School District Staff and Students meeting July 5. One member said at least one photo was taken before Wallen's bout with COVID-19 and provided time-stamped photos, including one dated Sept. 17, 2020, and another dated Feb. 3 with no year indicated.
As minor as it is in context, the sleeping Wallen photo represents one of many discrepancies between what Wallen says and what teachers and parents have said. One of the concerns voiced by teachers and discussed in PUSD Governing Board meetings is communications between teachers and administrators.
At the April 13 PUSD board meeting, board president Robert Candelaria commented on PUSD teacher Josh Brink's letter on the communication gap. Candelaria suggested a teacher-administration forum.
Wallen said Candelaria met with Josh Brink, and they talked about his concerns. Wallen said they've had the meetings. "Anybody can come in there that wants to," he said, "It went great. We actually made it twice a month for the last three months. I would say there are probably 30 to 40 people that log in. The other 150 don't."
Will there be enough teachers when school starts?
While some efforts are in progress to improve communications between administration and teachers, it's uncertain if PUSD will have enough teachers when school begins in August.
Wallen said, "We're hiring as fast as we can."
This reporter asked, "What's the plan if you're 20 teachers short?"
Wallen replied, "That would be really shocking if we're 20 teachers short. We are looking at online classes. So, I can bring in online classes, so let's say you're in Algebra 1. If I don't have an Algebra 1 teacher for those six sections, I'll bring them in online through a program we have called Edgenuity, or I can go out and contract with an online provider to bring the classes. Then I put a paraprofessional in to supervise the class and to work with the kids."
Edgenuity Inc. is an online course provider based in Scottsdale, AZ.
A paraprofessional is an unlicensed person performing functions of licensed, fully qualified professionals. Wallen said, "A paraprofessional is usually an individual without a degree. In some cases, we have paraprofessionals with degrees who are paid to work in the classroom with kids." He said their duties include "monitoring, tutoring, intervention, whatever is assigned to them."
Wallen said about 88 paraprofessionals are currently on the PUSD payroll.
Another teacher source is through the J-1 Visa foreign exchange program. The program came to a halt during the pandemic but has resumed. Wallen said they've hired "a couple" J-1 teachers so far. Wallen said these are usually teachers from the Philippines with a three-year visa. He said, "We screen them; we do virtual interviews online from here to the Philippines. We make them set up at night while we're in the afternoon. We do the interviews, and if they pass, then they can apply for a J-1 visa. We work with them to get that visa. They can teach three years, then they have to go back."
Wallen believes the main reason teachers are leaving is housing, though he said he doesn't know the actual figures because that information is not given. He gets his data from human resources. Wallen said, "That's not public record. Not my business." This raises questions because solving problems typically requires understanding the problem. Housing is undoubtedly an issue for Page, though Chronicle interviews with teachers and associates suggest other reasons, primarily related to administration rigidness and poor communications.
Wallen said of his approach to retaining teachers, "We're going to give you the best benefits package, the best environment to teach in, the greatest kids to teach, and that's what it's about."
Balancing the budget through attrition
The Chronicle will cover the budgetary problems of PUSD in an upcoming story, but it's worth mentioning now. Wallen presented the school board with several options to balance the budget, which is required by law. The route chosen was attrition.
Wallen summed up his meeting with the board saying, "So what can we do? I said, well, in order to reduce our budget, we've got to reduce it, so let's use attrition." He said, "In the teachers' contracts, they have a $1,000 penalty if they resign during the term of the contract. Let's get rid of that. If you want to resign, that's your business. That's not my business. So, we took that out so that people could resign if they chose to during the term of their contract, and we go find other people to replace them."
Wallen said PUSD hadn't reduced spending to match their budget in the last five years, even as enrollment and funding declined. He said PUSD was "way overstaffed." When asked what the ideal staff size would be, Wallen didn't have a number.
"Eighty percent of our budget is in salaries and benefits," Wallen said, "So [if] people want to leave, you know, thank you very much. You're doing us a good favor. We appreciate it, and that may sound cold."
Wallen said, "Things are going to be better next year. We will have what we need. I won't guarantee that there will be a teacher in every classroom, but there will be an adult in every classroom.
More to come
The Chronicle conducted over 10 hours of interviews with Wallen, past and present teachers, concerned parents, and citizens. The topics varied with multiple viewpoints and assessments of the PUSD's management. The common thread is concern for the children's future. The Chronicle will continue to report on its findings and how the board of governors and school administrators adapt to changing populations, volatile funding, and future technologies.