Why would anyone want to teach in Alaska, much less stay for most of their careers? It's a question some of the state's award-winning educators are weighing with deep concern.

The question arose during a monthly conference call some local teachers had with state education commissioner Michael Johnson.

"He gives us a heads up as to what he is expecting out of the legislature, etc.," said Eagle River High School teacher Valerie Baalerud, a 2017 Milken Educator Award winner. "Towards the end of that phone call, Ben Walker [2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year] posed a question and said, I have something before we close, why should I continue to teach in Alaska?"

Teachers in the conference call took turns explaining their current situations. 

"The commissioner had some answers to why we should stay, but it was more about, I think, some of your most well-rewarded teachers, explaining why we are considering leaving the state," Baalreud said. "And for me, it really hit home because my husband is also a teacher in the same building and he is finishing his fifth year of teaching. And, at five years, that's the decision-making point."

The decision to be made is whether to continue teaching in the state or to move on. Baalerud teamed up with nearly a dozen other heralded educators across the state to pen an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News last week entitled, "Why teach in Alaska?'

"Do we stay in Alaska knowing there is not much of a retirement system, knowing that the current administration is looking at education as it does as sort of expendable, and the fact that we have four children who are also here in the state?" Baalerud said. "Just a lot of decisions we have to make and for me, it was important enough for me to put my name on that article."

Teachers in Alaska may have one of the higher salaries in the country but the cost of living is also higher, especially in remote villages. Teachers do not pay into Social Security and their defined benefit plan for retirement is vested after five years of service. That means after teaching for five years, teachers can take the money from Alaska to any of the other 49 states offering a defined benefit plan and dedicate a full career there.

"That pot of money they are growing could run out and there is no safety net," said Jacob Bera, an alternate for 2019 Alaska Teacher of the Year. "I think that's a major factor in people getting to five or 10 years and deciding to leave."

Besides no safety net for retirement and no Social Security, health insurance premiums also are a driving factor behind educators leaving the state.

"When we left Wisconsin our monthly premium was $27," Bera said. "In the first year we started here in the district it was $270, and I literally called the office at ASD and asked if they added a zero accidentally and they said no, that's what it is."

Bera feels those high premiums are the common denominator to so many of the issues in the state of Alaska. Bera and his group of teachers are not alone. In fact, the school district also echoes their concerns when it comes attracting and retaining teachers,

"Things are harder for us at this point with our retirement system in the state for teachers and just a declining economy in general," said Kersten Johnson-Struempler, the Anchorage School District's senior director for secondary education.

When asked if there is a fix to the teacher retirement system, Johnson-Struempler said it would need to happen at the legislative level. 

"It really has to do with our state retirement system and that Tier III that's been created at the state level," Johnsen-Struempler said. "So it would have to be fixed at the legislative level for us to see a lot of benefits in the district in terms of teacher retention."

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, sees the importance of teacher benefits. He is currently trying to get his retirement bill, Senate Bill 46, introduced for a hearing. 

"Alaska is the only state in the union where there is no defined benefit, no pension-style benefit available to teachers at all," Kiehl said. "It's really hurting us in terms of keeping teachers. Once we recruit them, teachers, just like law enforcement officers, take several years to be performing really at their peak of effectiveness."

Kiehl says that under the current retirement system in Alaska, teachers are taking their expertise and the full value of the account to another state where they can earn a pension. 

"We are paying as Alaskans, to be a training ground for the rest of the country," Kiehl said. "When we could be providing this pension for the same or even less money and keeping people in Alaska through their golden years."  

Kiehl says other legislators are interested in his bill and would like to take a longer look at it. When that will happens remains to be seen.

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