Shane Oldenburg, a 13 year teacher at Colonial Forge High School, has recently bid adieu to the Forge hallways. Oldenburg, who taught Social Studies and started the AP Psychology program at Forge, left SCPS for better opportunities in Prince William. This popular teacher was also heavily involved in extracurricular activities such as coaching golf and the Scholastic Bowl team, sponsoring FCA and the chess club. He has graciously agreed to share he reasons for leaving with BTW to help parents better understand the problems SCPS faces with teacher attrition. The following is his story, in his own words:
Mark Twain once wrote, “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are pliable.” Recently, I read an article in the Free Lance Star that used statistics to show not as many teachers in Stafford County are leaving in order to pursue jobs in Northern Virginia. I found this quite surprising because I am one of many Stafford County teachers who are leaving the county this year. While I did not enter into my profession with the expectation of getting rich, the differences between Stafford County and Prince William County have become overwhelming. However, my reason for leaving is not solely monetary; one of the main reasons I am leaving is due to trust. The fact is Stafford County schools advertise a pay scale based off years of experience, yet they fail to honor the very document they created.
My loyalty and devotion to the county has always been unquestioned. In fact, I never thought I would leave my job at Colonial Forge. In college I had hoped to earn a career as a high school history teacher and teach in the same school for the entirety of my career. As recently as May of this year I had no interest in leaving my position. I had never even considered applying for another position in my 13 years in this county. That is, until I received my contract this year. Once again, the Board of Supervisors has underfunded the school system. This, despite the county experiencing unprecedented growth and despite being recognized recently as the eighth wealthiest county in the nation. The contract I received in May was for the exact amount as my previous year’s contract and did not reflect the additional year I had served. I was devastated. Although the difference in pay should only have been around $800 this year, the county once again failed to acknowledge the years I have given them. Unfortunately, this pattern has become the norm.
When I first met our superintendent, Dr. Benson, and he shared his ideas with me about how he hoped to impact our county, I was impressed and believed he was exactly what our county needed. For the past several years I have stood by him and defended him even when many of my colleagues criticized him. I was glad when he accomplished getting us off the “step” system, where the School Board voted each year as to whether or not to reward us for another year of experience. This system left us several years behind our actual years of experience, which most of us found very frustrating. It had teachers trying to climb a ladder without any rungs. When I received my contract, my faith in Dr. Benson was shattered and I realized the ladder still had no rungs. Whether or not I advanced in salary was no longer dependent on my performance nor experience. It became dependent upon a small group of leaders that refused to prioritize the most essential asset of an educational system. I also realized that at this pace, it could take nearly 50 years of teaching to reach the top of the scale for retirement. I had been a faithful employee with no desire to leave my school, but now I was hurt enough to actually consider leaving my dream job. Hurt, not because of an $800 difference in pay, but because of a county that let me know through their voting that we, as teachers, are not worth the amount they promised based on experience.
I have since taken a job in Prince William County and am astonished in the disparity in pay. While I will be teaching the same subject, my salary is going to increase over 25% this year (while being required to teach fewer classes) and that number will only get higher in the years to come. My retirement pension is going to be nearly 40% higher and my healthcare costs are decreasing. More importantly, I have spoken with several teachers who have moved to this county and found nearly all of them to say teachers are valued and prioritized every year. It was a heart-breaking decision to leave the school I loved. I, like so many others who remain, believe fully in my school, its leadership, and the colleagues around me. I believe in my students, both former and current, and I always have. However, I am convinced that Stafford County’s system is broken and I have lost all faith in Dr. Benson, the School Board, and the Board of Supervisors. This is why I chose to leave the school I had loved for the past 13 years.
It is quite shocking to read that the leaders of Stafford County think they are improving at retaining teachers. In my own department over the past two years, we have had nearly a 66% turnover rate with 10 out of 16 teachers leaving. Of those, two were lost to retirement and one switched careers. The other seven were lost to school systems with higher pay (and a scale that accurately reflects their experience). I believe that, despite his rhetoric, Dr. Benson has given up on retention and focused more on recruiting new teachers to replace those of us who are leaving. Every year, there are always many new faces and names to learn, many of whom do not remain past a few years. Education should not be a revolving door business.
This county has been blessed with some of the finest teachers in the state, but as they are undervalued year after year, these teachers leave. In the end, the students suffer. Until the leaders of the county are willing to come together and support their teachers, it is just not a good place to spend your career. The leaders of our county have continually complained that they cannot compete with Northern Virginia’s pay scale. However, it is clear that they are not really trying, since they are not even honoring their own pay scale.
As teachers, we know this is not a profession that we will become rich in. We do need to know though that we will achieve a comfortable standard of living as we age, raise a family, and progress in our profession. Shifting the scale back further and further each year (from 30 years to 38 years at this point) is like trying to hit a moving target and is incredibly disheartening. This is what has ultimately caused me to lose faith in Stafford County and head elsewhere. While I am excited to enter into this new chapter of my life, I am leaving many close friends behind. I believe that Stafford County can be an excellent place to work, live, and raise a family, however, it is going to take a considerable investment in our teachers to make this the case. Statistics, as Mark Twain stated, are indeed pliable, and in this case were used to support the exact idea the county wanted to convey. The reality though is that teachers in Stafford feel undervalued and deceived on an almost yearly basis. This is a problem created by a leadership that is refusing to acknowledge the environment they have established, and in doing so, continually fails to create a proper solution.
Thank you for sharing your story with BTW, Shane. We wish you nothing but the best in your future endeavors.