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Idaho teachers head to Wyoming for higher pay

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 5 2011 11:03 p.m. MDT

IDAHO FALLS — Gary Dustin liked being a teacher in Jefferson Joint School District 251 and being a part of the community of Rigby in eastern Idaho.

But he says he wanted to provide for his family, so the Rigby Junior High School teacher made the move to Star Valley High School in Afton, Wyo., where his pay jumped by $25,000 to $57,000 a year.

The Post Register reported Sunday that Dustin has several colleagues in eastern Idaho who have done the same, lured by bigger paychecks.

Marjean McConnell, human resources director for Bonneville Joint School District 93 in eastern Idaho, says she tries to focus on the recreation and lifestyle opportunities of the region when recruiting new teachers. But competing with Wyoming is a challenge, she says.

Natural gas, coal and oil have made Wyoming wealthy over the past few decades — and a sizable portion of that money goes to the education system. That enables places like Star Valley to offer salaries, benefits and resources that are tough to top.

Jon Abrams, superintendent of Lincoln County School District 2, which includes Star Valley High School, spent five years working in eastern Idaho schools before moving to Wyoming. He said the state's willingness to invest in education was a big part of what drew him away from Shelly and Idaho Falls.

"The state makes a lot of money, and education is their top priority," he said. "The Legislature has chosen to spend its money on a strong schools system, and that puts a lot of resources at our disposal."

For example, the state recently paid $14 million to build an elementary school in Abrams' district, with no bond elections or tax increases needed.

At Star Valley High School alone, there are at least eight former Idaho teachers. Most of them also coached teams or advised clubs when they lived in Idaho.

Jeff Johnson left his job as a science teacher and football coach at Ririe High School last May. This is his first week as a teacher in Star Valley.

"Moving here allowed me the ability to free up some time with my family and took some of the financial pressure off of us feeling that I needed to pick up more coaching, or having my wife leave our youngest daughter while she worked more," he said.

For Idaho school administrators, it's a harsh reality that they can't do much to change.

"When it comes to salary, we aren't competitive with that, and we can't be," said Karla LaOrange, who does much of the recruiting for Idaho Falls School District 91. "I can't really say we can compete financially."

LaOrange said she sells teachers on the activities and lifestyles they can pursue in Idaho Falls, as well as the resources available through Idaho National Laboratory, the Idaho Falls Arts Council and the Museum of Idaho.

Idaho's budget woes have meant big cuts for schools. Over the past two years, Idaho Falls' two school districts each had about $6 million in cuts. Eastern Idaho superintendents don't think they've seen the last of the cuts, either.

State Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said education funding was a casualty of the economy. Bateman sits on the House education committee.

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