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Low pay makes it tough for area preschools to keep highly-qualified teachers

Jameson Davis, 4, is closely watched by his teacher, Andrea Willert of Fargo, N.D., during an art session at Trinity Preschool at Trinity Lutheran Church Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Moorhead, Minn. Willert has been working as a teacher here for five years, but is moving on to be a paraprofessional at Eastwood Elementary School in West Fargo, N.D., largely for insurance reasons. Nick Wagner / The Forum

MOORHEAD – If you want to learn the ABCs of economics and hiring, Kay Heidrich says try keeping a college-trained preschool teacher on staff.

Heidrich, the director of Trinity Lutheran Church Preschool, said chronic low wages in the industry and rising student debt are making it tough for private preschools to retain highly qualified personnel.

She recently had three of her 10 staff members leave jobs at the preschool. One is moving out of the area, but the other two were hired as paraprofessionals by the West Fargo School District.

“What the schools pay for a para is $4 an hour more than I can pay, but they are funded by tax levies,” Heidrich. “I know at least three more sites that are looking for at least two people apiece, and that’s just on the Moorhead side” of the Red River.

“I can’t compete with the schools, I can’t compete with the hospitals and I can’t compete with Head Start” for wages or benefits, Heidrich said, because they are backed with taxpayer dollars or run by large companies.

Benefits also play a role. Heidrich offers a stipend to help employees buy health insurance, but one staff member who left said getting a health insurance package from her new employer sealed the deal.

Tuition at Trinity is funded by parents, said Heidrich, who is also president of the Area Preschool Alliance.

A family with two children in day care may pay $1,300 a month. Trying to add $3 to $4 an hour to the salaries of staff to keep them from bolting for better pay could turn tuition into a deal breaker for families on tight budgets, she said.

Heidrich is not alone in facing hiring headaches.

Kim VanCamp is in charge of child care at Atonement Christian Childcare and Preschool at south Fargo’s Atonement Lutheran Church. She ended a stint as preschool director two months ago.

“We had a big turnover in May,” VanCamp said, though staffing levels are now back up.

The facility has 22 staff members, 10 of whom are full time.

VanCamp said it’s hard for preschools to get people with four years of schooling to sign on “because of the low pay, for sure. Pretty sad.”

A 2012 Wilder Foundation survey found that 47 percent of Minnesota’s preschools saw employee turnover in the past year.

In 2013, preschool teachers earned an average of $26,680 per year in North Dakota and $38,880 in Minnesota, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Teachers’ assistants (paraprofessionals) earned an average of $29,880 per year in North Dakota and $28,530 in Minnesota.

Child care workers are paid less, according to North Dakota Job Service data for 2013.

In the Fargo-Moorhead area, child care workers started at $16,740 per year, with an average wage of $17,870 per year.

“The sad truth is for those who graduate in early childhood education, they graduate and don’t earn very much money,” said Carey Fry, the Fargo manager for Job Service North Dakota.

With more preschool teachers needed to prepare students to learn in kindergarten, Heidrich said it may be time for Minnesota and other states to step in, perhaps by buying down the student loan debt of those who choose to work as early childhood educators.

“More people may go into this if they didn’t have that big student loan debt behind them,” she said.

Employers could also consider adding preschool stipends as a benefit for employees with young children, she said.

Increases in Minnesota’s minimum wage will also affect the bottom lines of private profit and nonprofit preschools, Heidrich said.

Minnesota’s minimum-wage rises to $8 an hour for large employers on Aug. 1, then to $9 an hour in August 2015 and $9.50 an hour in August 2016. In 2018, further hikes will be tied to the rate of inflation.

Small employers will have to pay $6.50 an hour on Aug. 1, $7.25 an hour in August 2015 and $7.75 an hour in August 2016, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry.

“This is going to be a big concern for the Minnesota side of the river,” Heidrich said.

Fargo and West Fargo will also be affected because they draw from the same talent pool as Moorhead preschools, Heidrich predicted.

“If I raise my wages $3 an hour, will I be attracting people from the North Dakota side?” Heidrich asks.

VanCamp believes so.

“I think it will,” VanCamp said. “We’ll start losing staff if they can go two minutes away and get paid more.”

In the meantime, Heidrich was chipping away at filling the open jobs, interviewing potential candidates earlier this week.

But she sounded as if she was mentally preparing to teach again until she’s back at full staff.

“I know I’ll be doing double duty soon if I don’t find qualified applicants,” Heidrich said.

Teach kids or pay bills

Preschool teachers in the F-M area find themselves often drawn to working in other fields because of low pay. Here are some comparisons of full-time average annual pay:

  • Preschool teachers: North Dakota, $26,680; Minnesota, $38,880.
  • Teacher assistants (paraprofessionals): North Dakota, $29,880; Minnesota, $28,530.
  • Pesticide sprayers: North Dakota, $29,990; Minnesota, $32,490.
  • Retail salesclerks: North Dakota, $28,210; Minnesota $23,730.
  • Bill collectors: North Dakota, $31,370; Minnesota, $37,020.
  • Farm crop and greenhouse workers: North Dakota, $28,100; Minnesota, $24,380.
  • Postal service clerks: North Dakota, $35,810; Minnesota, $44,580.
  • Utility meter readers: North Dakota $45,890; Minnesota, $46,280.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics