A February survey by the Blaine County Education Association shows cratering teacher morale—and a harsh counterpoint to the School District’s standing positive line on staff engagement.
“In an effort to reveal concerns regarding teacher morale,” union leadership forwarded the results to school board trustees on June 11, hours before its regular monthly meeting and about two weeks after the two sides wrapped up negotiations on an annual contract for the 2019-20 school year.
The results were obtained through a records request by a member of the public and passed on to the Idaho Mountain Express.
Using 13 questions selected from a third-party, district-funded survey conducted in May 2014, the February results submitted
confidentially by 134 of the union’s 233 members show steep declines across the board in areas of overall engagement and “shared values” with district brass.
In a separate question, the union asked members to rate morale in their building. More than half classified it as “poor” or “awful,” according to union Negotiations Chairwoman Jamie Harding, a librarian at the Ernest Hemingway STEAM School.
“We heard there was interest in hearing from teachers, and we had data available—something quantifiable, relevant and reliable to provide the trustees,” Harding said in an interview Wednesday. “It spoke to this question of what the teachers are thinking. This wasn’t just one or two teachers—it was half our membership. We didn’t hand-pick who responded. To me, it kind of speaks for itself.”
Overall, 78 percent said they were proud to work for the Blaine County School District—19 percentage points below the 97 percent who responded positively five years ago.
More specific questions yielded starker results. Just 16 percent of respondents “agree” or “strongly agree” that there is “a strong sense of teamwork and cooperation in this district and with administration,” versus 43 percent of responding certified staff in 2014; 22 percent said they “feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions with the district,” versus 59 percent previously; 22 percent said they “feel that the district motivates me to contribute more than what is expected of me,” down from 61 percent; and 23 percent said they trust information provided to them by district leadership, compared to 62 percent earlier.
“I think trust is the biggest issue—that seems blatantly clear,” Harding said. “I want to be careful not to assume anything, but I think you could elaborate that to mean [a lack of trust] in the process—in committees and avenues for sharing our concerns.”
Teachers did report better relationships with their school and department managers: Fifty-seven percent agreed that “building/department leadership motivates me to contribute more than what is expected of me,” six percentage points off the 2014 response.
That aligns with results from a state-mandated all-staff engagement survey conducted this spring, which showed more positive results across the board. Administered by the Idaho Department of Education, the anonymous, confidential survey specifically asked respondents to assess only their individual schools.
Of the 445 who answered—about 90 percent of the district’s total staff—just over three-quarters responded favorably to questions about “our school’s culture,” while around two-thirds spoke positively about support for students and staff.
Across the entire 19-question set, 71 percent of overall responses came back favorable.
Though the surveys don’t directly align, the disparity points to two possibilities, Harding said. Either “classified” staff—mainly those in support positions—are much happier than teachers; or, relationships with building administrators remain tighter than those with administrators in the district office.
Since this is the first year Idaho required the satisfaction survey, there are no norms or historical comparisons for the state data. In presenting those results to the school board on June 11, Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes told the trustees that she expects more information from the Department of Education in August.
“A couple of things in there are celebrations,” Holmes told the board of the staff survey. “They think our leaders are approachable. They think our schools are safe. And, a celebration for me is that so many people in our schools know that they are responsible for student learning.”
Holmes also told the board that the district is working to give building administrators more control over staffing and spending decisions.
Trustee Ellen Mandeville forwarded the Blaine County Education Association survey results to the superintendent prior to the presentation on June 11. Holmes was travelling on Thursday, and could not be reached by press time.
In an email to the Express, the district did cite its 92.2 percent year-over-year teacher retention rate—8 percentage points above the Idaho average—as another positive indicator.
Holmes herself came on as superintendent in July 2014—about two months after the contractor K12 Insights polled the staff on the earlier survey.
But, as Trustee Kevin Garrison sees it, much has changed since that data were gathered, beyond district leadership.
“That was a time when the board was still spending down reserves,” Garrison said. “Cuts had to be made. It’s not all GwenCarol—it’s how things were when everything was rosy, versus after we had to make some hard choices.
“I think that information is really valuable and important,” he added. “This needs to be a priority—we need to spend time making sure we have a happy and productive staff. … For me, even in conversation with GwenCarol, I think we need to slow down some of our new initiatives, and take some time to build morale. We’ve undergone massive changes. And, with changes to the state funding formula, we’ve had to make some massive cuts. You can’t just jam these things through. We need to help people adjust to them, because they’ve been difficult. And I think both surveys reflect that.”