Lake Belton High School

Workers continue construction of the new Lake Belton High School during a tour of the new Belton Independent School District building.

Teachers are a hot commodity in Bell County.

The three largest districts here need to hire at least 900 teachers for the 2020-21 school year.

The Belton Independent School District plans to hire 200 teachers. Killeen ISD needs a whopping 600 teachers. And Temple ISD anticipates hiring 90 to 100 teachers.

“We’re all trying to attract the best people,” said Todd Schiller, Belton ISD’s assistant superintendent of human resources.

To accomplish that, the Belton school board unanimously approved a three-pronged incentive package to hire teachers early and keep good teachers at Southwest Elementary and Miller Heights Elementary — two campuses with more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged students.

Temple and Killeen ISDs have not approved new incentive packages for the upcoming school year, according to officials with both districts.

“Questions around compensation, talent attraction and retention are always part of early budget discussions,” Temple Superintendent Bobby Ott said. “We will release that information only after careful study, research and analysis.”

Hiring early

Belton ISD is focusing on hiring teachers early.

“For the last two years, we’ve really made a focus of hiring individuals early — before the vacancies occur. We know how many teachers we’re going to hire from one year to the next based on projections of vacancies and those types of things. We kind of know what we need,” Schiller said. “Our goal is to increase the number we hire early with those early hiring incentives.”

Certified classroom teachers hired before May 1 will receive $2,500 on their first paycheck in August. New teachers in Belton ISD earned a starting salary of $50,200 in the current school year.

“Hopefully — with the early hiring incentives — once they say yes, they’ll come and stop looking because they got this little $2,500 incentive that’s tied to it and they’ll stay,” Schiller said.

It’s obvious why Belton ISD is offering this incentive: Hundreds of teachers are needed in the county.

“I think the numbers speak for itself,” Schiller said, with a chuckle. “We’ve identified the need for teachers in the county. Just from talking with other superintendents, we understand the number that’s going to be needed. We’re adding new campuses, with Lake Belton High School coming on and Belton Middle School coming online.”

The 200 teachers Belton is projecting hiring are not all new positions.

“We’re projecting how many teachers we’re going to lose every year so that includes the estimated number of teachers we’re going to lose just for replacement and then new growth as well,” Schiller said. “We see the need, and we’re really trying to get an early start trying to encourage individuals to come to us.”

Economically disadvantaged campuses

The district’s two other incentives are tied to Southwest Elementary and Miller Heights Elementary.

Both campuses have had their share of hurdles. The two campuses combined have lost 34 teachers in the past three years, Schiller said. And the Texas Education Agency rated Southwest Elementary as a “D” campus in this year’s A-F accountability ratings — the lowest score in Belton ISD.

The district wants to attract teachers with at least three years of experience to both campuses. Qualified teachers would receive $3,000 to accept positions at the two schools.

On top of that, Belton ISD wants to keep top talent at Southwest and Miller Heights.

“This should help with those turnover numbers,” Schiller said. “That retention incentive is geared toward keeping teachers there on a consecutive basis year after year after year. That retention incentive for teachers who return from this current school year will receive $3,000 and that will increase $500 per year. It caps at $5,000, and, at that $5,000, that’s consecutively every year after that.”

Both campuses, Schiller said, need consistency among their staff to ensure the best student results.

“We haven’t had that consistency over the last three years,” he said. “We’ve worked really hard trying to think as a leadership team about ways we could ensure or help with that consistency. We figure if we can get the right candidates on board and offer them a retention to return year after year after year it’s going to benefit the kids. Kids want to see a familiar face from year to year.”

‘A big deal’

Board Secretary Janet Leigh asked if the incentive package — which is not expected to exceed $700,000, according to a staff report — had a recruiting component.

“In that we would look for master teachers to recruit to work on these campuses,” the former Miller Heights Elementary teacher said.

Administrators are always hunting for good teachers, Schiller said.

“If we run across a master teacher, obviously, we would do our best to try to recruit them into the district,” he told Leigh.

Interim Superintendent Robin Battershell pointed out that they want to keep that top teaching talent here and use them to assist in recruitment efforts.

“We want them to find others who are of equal caliber in instruction,” she said. “It will be highly publicized and we are seeking those masters. Again, it’s not just getting them in the door. It’s keeping them in the door. That’s been one of our biggest issues.”

Battershell said the incentive package has another requirement.

“They have to maintain a certain level of proficiency and mastery to retain it,” the longtime educator said. “It’s not only physically getting them there and keeping them there — it’s also the competency that goes along with it to retain that amount of money.”

Belton ISD plans to include the hiring and retention incentives in its annual compensation package, Schiller said.

“I would like to say that I appreciate what you guys are doing — getting out in front of this,” trustee Ty Taggart said. “Me being a former teacher and married to a teacher for 25-plus years, we never did it for the money. No one is going to turn these opportunities down.”

“This is a big deal,” Taggart added.

Other districts’ plans

Killeen ISD, like Belton, is growing. Taina Maya, the Killeen schools spokeswoman, said a recent report from Templeton Demographics named the West Bell County district the 18th-fastest growing district in Texas.

“Killeen ISD is always exploring various incentive options for our employees,” she said.

Killeen ISD, Maya explained, attracts teachers online and through in-person appearances at job fairs.

Maya touted Killeen ISD’s new compensation package the school board approved last summer.

“Over the summer, the district passed a monumental compensation package which increased our starting teacher salary to $50,300 and gave educators a substantial pay increase of 6.6 percent to 10 percent prioritizing differentiated compensation for full-time teachers with more years of experience,” she said.

It is too early to know where teachers will be needed in Temple ISD, district spokesman Christian Hernandez said.

“When school districts plan for staffing, they aren’t just focusing on employees leaving the district,” he said. “They must consider teachers who are contemplating retirement, possible promotions within the district, transfers to different campus or subject matter. It’s a very complex process with a lot of moving parts so it is still far too early to say where we’ll have needs.”

Ott highlighted Temple ISD’s new compensation package as a way to lure teachers to its schools. New teachers in Temple earn a starting salary of $50,225 — $25 more than new Belton teachers and $75 less than new Killeen teachers.

“Temple ISD currently leads in compensation among comparable districts for starting teachers,” the Temple superintendent said. “Further, our entire staff is paid comparable or ahead of our surrounding districts. This reflects our philosophy that every staff member is important, regardless of campus or position.”

Any potential incentive package would be part of Temple ISD’s 2020-21 budget, which the school board approves in June.

“As the past has proven, a thoughtful and methodical approach to developing our budget and compensation packages is the right approach for every employee in Temple ISD,” Ott said.