AUSTIN (KXAN) — Data from the Austin Independent School District shows a surge in resignations from teachers and support staff, including bus operators and food service workers.

This came after more than two years of challenges ranging from the pandemic to a flurry of new laws and proposed legislation impacting classrooms across the state.

In December, Bronwyn Merritt resigned from her position as a fifth-grade math teacher in Austin after more than a decade as an educator.

“Education has not always been this hard. I mean, I taught in some pretty tough places, and this is the hardest it’s ever been for me,” Merritt said.

Her breaking point, she said, came after a meeting in December with her principal, in which they discussed new requirements under a new accelerated instruction law (the district did not comment on the conditions of Merritt’s resignation).

The state law requires districts to report at least 30 additional hours of learning time with students who did not pass the STAAR evaluations. Since June, the district identified more than 31,000 accelerated instruction plans created for third-grade to 12th-grade students.

Merritt said the law has good intentions for students, but she said it was implemented at her school without additional time, resources or materials for teachers.

“Austin dumped it on their teachers’ plates without any information, with only the expectation that we would do it because it’s the law,” Merritt said. “That’s unheard of because we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the hours, we have stacked classrooms of sometimes 30, 31 kids in the class.”

The district told KXAN via email the new law only “formalized the expectation that we would have had for students anyway.” But the state did put measures in place requiring districts to document the additional instruction, communicate with parents in certain ways and dictate the group size and time frame for the interventions.

The district said it provided supplemental pay to teachers who tutored before or after school for the required interventions and designed schedules for the required interventions during the school day.

Merritt, however, resigned. In a contract release form for the district, she cited dissatisfaction with the district and told supervisors she could no longer take care of her family and herself while completing her job duties.

“I have a family,” Merritt said. “I don’t want to stay after school for less than my salary or my hourly pay to spend more time doing the work they’re expecting me to do.”

‘34% increase in resignations’

Merritt is among a surge of teachers and school staff who are leaving school systems. An analysis of Austin ISD data showed 270 teachers have resigned from the district since August — 11% more teacher resignations than this time last year.

But the increase in total staff resignations, including support positions like bus drivers, custodians and food workers, is even greater. AISD data showed a 34% increase in total resignations across the district in that same timeframe.

AISD Chief of Human Capital Leslie Stephens is aware of the situation her district and others across the country are in. Her department has been trying to find fixes to keep the staff it has while actively searching for new employees to fill the gaps.

“Part of that, we do realize is a compensation issue, because this pandemic, one of the things we have seen, is fast food or even clerical positions in stores have all increased their wages to now we are out compensated,” said Stephens about support staff positions. “And we do have a plan to bring forward to counter that.”

Stephens said the district is recruiting for new hires year-round — something it has not had to do in previous years — and said the district has restructured departments in its central office to increase salaries for teachers.

“The other things we heard is a real need at the elementary level for more planning time, and so we are looking at those schedules to see how we can give that at the elementary level,” Stephens said.

‘Dwindling workforce’

Other Central Texas school districts have recently taken tough action against teachers who resign from the school district.

In recent weeks, both the Del Valle Independent School District and Pflugerville Independent School District school boards voted to sanction some teachers and report them to the Texas Education Agency for job abandonment. The move can be detrimental for teachers looking for a job in a different district because it could result in the state revoking or suspending the person’s teaching certificate.

“As we know, our district is currently in a situation of crisis of a dwindling workforce issue that is actually causing harm to our students,” said PfISD Trustee Jean Mayer during a Jan. 20 trustees meeting. “I understand this is a very hard time. People have to make their own decisions, but we have to hold staff accountable because it is causing harm to students.”

Pflugerville ISD Chief Communications Officer Tamra Spence said January was the first time the district reported names of teachers who did not properly resign to the TEA. Spence said the district will continue the practice for the rest of the school year. So far, the district has reported 10 of its teachers.

Pflugerville ISD Trustee Jean Mayer spoke before the board voted to sanction eight teachers for job abandonment. (Pflugerville ISD meeting, Jan. 20, 2022)

“We understand there are various reasons for these resignations, many of which are considered ‘good cause’ as determined by the Texas Education Agency. However, some do not meet the set parameters to break their contracts,” Spence said.

Del Valle Executive Director of Communications Christopher Weddle said the board only sanctions teachers who abandon their contracts and leave students without a teacher.

“Many teachers have either not shown up for work and/or resigned before the district found a suitable replacement to prevent students from being without a teacher,” Weddle said. “It is important to note that the DVISD Human Resources Department proactively tries to find suitable replacements through job fairs and active recruiting efforts.”

Austin ISD does not currently engage in the practice of sanctioning an educator’s certificate for contract abandonment, according to school spokesperson Eddie Villa.

KXAN also requested data showing the number of resignations in the last two years from several other school districts, including Del Valle ISD and Round Rock ISD but has yet to receive the records.