School district looks at paying for teachers’ student loan debt

Horry County Schools could start paying off teachers’ student loan debt.

The Horry County school board’s human resources committee on Monday discussed the idea, proposed by Ray Winters of District 3, as a way to increase teacher retention.

The proposed plan calls for paying $5,000 towards new teacher’s student loan debt if the teacher stays at the district for five years. It could also be applied retroactively to teachers who have already started teaching.

“It’s not as easy to attract people to the teaching profession,” said Superintendent Rick Maxey. “There are multiple variables at work. College education is a very expensive proposition these days. Certainly scholarships are a part for some students, but in most cases, students end up having to borrow money, whether it’s a state, federal or private loan and you have to make payments.”

Winters said that paying off student loan debt is a good way to transfer the money for use by teachers without it being taxed, and said the incentive could help with retention of South Carolina’s dwindling supply of educators.

The number teachers who graduated from a South Carolina school to teach in the state has fallen from 2,219 during the 2014-15 school year to 1,898 in the 2016-17 school year according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement’s fall 2016 supply and demand survey released in January.

“There’s just the reality of the fact that in general, there’s not a lot of critical needs people being produced in certain key areas,” said Winters.

Critical needs varies by district but generally includes math science and special education.

Last year the district lost 207 teachers but hired 302. At the time of the CERRA survey, the district still had 31 vacant teaching positions. Ten of those were in special education.

“I think sometimes people who may have an interest in education do a dollars and cents analysis and decide, ‘even though I would love that opportunity,’ it doesn’t fit for them,” said Maxey.

According to Horry County Schools, the district ranks fourth in the state in starting teacher pay at $36,011 per year. Aiken, Dorchester 2 and Richland 2 rank first through third, respectively.

“There’s just not a lot of people going to school in these (critical needs) areas to be teachers in those areas, so you’ve got a lot of school districts competing for a small number of teachers in these areas,” said Winters. “We want to be the one that these handfuls of teachers come to teach at.”

Winters said that despite the lower pay, the rewards of teaching are more than monetary.

“I’ve taught myself,” said Winters. “Granted, my teaching was at the college level, but there’s nothing more rewarding than a student that tells you what an impact you’ve made on their life.

“When we can reward it with compensation, do that too,” he said. “But let the community know the other accomplishments the teachers make in kids’ lives. I know teachers don’t enter the field of teaching (for) the monetary rewards. Unfortunately it’s never going to be rewarded from a compensation standpoint. But the teachers, they love their jobs and we want to do everything we can to support them and do everything we can for them and I hope that they know that too.”

The committee is still gathering more information regarding the student loan payments, and both Winters and Maxey said the incentive plan could change.

Christian Boschult, 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian