Jun 12, 2023 - Education

Johnston school staff morale lowers amidst political division

Illustration of a children's block with a downward arrow on it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Engagement and optimism are down for Johnston school district staff.

Why it matters: "We'll be the first to admit, the results weren't great," associate superintendent Nikki Roorda and school board president Alicia Clevenger wrote in an end-of-year email to staff regarding results of a survey conducted March 21 to April 2.

  • Staff shared they felt overworked and that there's a lack of direction by administrators and the school board.
  • They also said they needed more support dealing with student misbehavior.

By the numbers: 71% of participating employees were classified as highly engaged/engaged — a 10-percentage point decrease from the 2018-2019 school year.

  • "I am optimistic about the future of this district" received the lowest favorable responses at 36%.

The other side: Staff’s feelings toward their work environment received some of the highest ratings.

  • 90% strongly agreed/agreed they were supported by their colleagues and 83% felt safe at work.

Zoom in: High administrative turnover made it difficult to meet goals, especially since new administrators came in with different agendas, according to an open-response section of the survey.

  • There are also political tensions between administrators and the school board. Staff members are unhappy with former Superintendent Laura Kacer's resignation, according to the open responses.

Between the lines: Like other school districts across the country, Johnston has undergone major leadership changes and political tensions since 2020.

  • The school board's make-up changed in 2021 when a conservative wave boosted three new members.
  • The district landed in the news for several politically charged issues, including board members supporting the creation of a Turning Point USA chapter, a pro-Trump youth group.
  • Kacer suddenly resigned as superintendent in February. The news came shortly after a lawsuit was filed by a student’s family alleging her First Amendment rights were violated when she was suspended for refusing to change out of a t-shirt depicting a gun.

The big picture: Johnston isn't alone dealing with lower staff morale.

  • Just 46% of K-12 teachers nationally say it's "fairly" likely they would advise their younger selves to enter the education field again, according to a recent survey by Merrimack College.

What's next: Johnston school leaders shared some of their plans to help improve morale with staff, including offering smaller class sizes for struggling students, creating new equity goals and improving communication to staff about district changes.

A chart showing lowering school staff morale over years at Johnston
A chart from Johnston's survey showing results post and pre-pandemic. Chart: Courtesy of Johnston schools

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