The Missouri K-12 Education Department has been reviewing whether the state can use federal coronavirus aid to give teachers a bonus next school year if they stay on the job. The idea was first brought up last October by state Board of Education President Charlie Shields as a way to keep teachers around.

The state already has a persistent shortage of teachers and COVID-19 has made the problem even worse. The pandemic has added a great deal of stress to the workload of Missouri’s roughly 70,000 pre-K-12 public school teachers.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Deputy Commissioner of Finance, Kari Monsees, says there’s good news and bad news on the bonus front.

“The challenge for us in Missouri is we have case law in statutes that are fairly limiting us in terms of incentives or bonuses,” says Monsees. “But we do have a wide range of flexibility to try and support teachers for all the extra things that they are doing that are covid related.”

Dr. Monsees says the department is also discussing whether to use some of the federal relief to build a grant program for long-term teacher recruitment and retention efforts.

Shields, of northwest Missouri’s St. Joseph, suggests finding bills with momentum in the Legislature and adding language to include even greater flexibility. He is a former state Senate president.

“If there are barriers in statute, obviously we can’t fix the Constitution. We can’t undo case law,” says Shields. “But if there are barriers in statute, there are pieces moving. I would think there would be some receptivity to doing things around this area.”

Board member Peter Herschend, of southwest Missouri’s Branson, suggests asking for Gov. Mike Parson’s help.

“I remember very specifically the governor looking us in the eye and saying, ‘If you have something that needs to be changed that will make a difference for educators, let me know.’ I wouldn’t go after the whole loaf of bread but if we can get exactly what Charlie is saying. If we can define an area – let’s just say it’s an emergency change in statute just in the compensation area.”

Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven says the department continues to review its options.

“I agree and I’ve had every member of this board look me in the eye and say they are concerned about teacher salary and I’ve had the governor look me in the eye and say, ‘Figure out something with teacher salary.’ Now we are getting additional funds. We have to figure it out. We understand. We are just have to figure out the best way. We absolutely need to do it. But it’s going to take a bit of a creative solution but one that is manageable and also again continues to be something that is sustainable. That’s the hardest part as well. It’s a one-time shot. It’s not like we are going to get this funding and continue with it,” she says.

Dr. Vandeven says the funding can be used for additional services provided.

“I think there are ways we can do this. It’s not as simple as you get hazard pay. It has to be very specific. Some industries have been able to write people checks for hazard pay, for example. This funding expressly states that you cannot do that, but you can pay them for extended learning time, or for extra services, which they have done. Bringing them back as a sign on component, it would have to be eligible for everyone to do that. It can’t just be certain teachers. It has to be everybody,” says Vandeven.

In other board news, Missouri K-12 public schools will have a little more time to complete statewide MAP tests this year. Assistant Commissioner Blaine Henningsen says the spring testing period has been extended an extra two weeks – to June 15.

“We’ve shared with this board many times how critical we think it is for state assessments to take place this year because we need to know where kids are based upon the experiences that they’ve had with instruction this year,” says Dr. Henningsen. “We will use assessment data to identify learning gaps among students, to inform decisions on how to best serve those students, and to provide additional supports and resources. This will also help provide meaningful information for students, parents, educators, and policy makers.”

Missouri could offer a fall MAP testing period if districts cannot meet the state’s requirement of holding 85-percent of onsite testing this spring.

MAP test results for this year only will not count against districts for funding and accreditation purposes.

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