It’s 7 o’clock on a school night and all Jennifer Thornton and Virginia Ayers have had to eat all day is one serving of trail mix plus a handful of peanuts, and a half a block of cheese, respectively.

Both are routinely in such dire straits, but they’ve only resorted to seeking out help two or three times from the food pantry at John 3:16 Mission because they’re ashamed.

“They’re there — you have to see the children you used to have in your class,” said Ayers. “They look up to you. You’re a model of hope of what a college degree can get you.”

The two met 11 years ago, when they were both new teachers at Emerson Elementary School, 909 N. Boston Ave., just one mile from that food pantry.

Over the years, the co-workers became best friends and confidantes outside of the classroom, quietly helping one another weather many storms.

“You always hear about teacher collaboration — we collaborate about how to be poor,” Thornton said, laughing a little as tears streamed down her cheeks, red-hot with embarrassment.

A statewide teacher shortage, and its related consequences on class size, course offerings for students and teacher morale, is fueling political debate about teacher pay in Oklahoma.

But for teachers, the matter isn’t just political. It’s personal.

Double duty

After 5 p.m. at Ayers’ and Thornton’s old school, Emerson, the loud singing of the janitor reverberates in this “open concept” building, where wall-less classrooms line a central, open library.

First-grade teacher Pamela Boxley is busy arranging materials in bins for her 28 students and apologizes for the janitor, saying, “He always does that.”

At a computer in the corner, the youngest of Boxley’s three children, 15-year-old Ashli Boxley, is drowning out the noise with music from headphones as she works on her homework.

“I had her sharpening pencils earlier,” Pamela Boxley said, and then shaking her head, added, “I feel bad. I pick her up from Booker T. and bring her here, or on the nights I work at Macy’s, I drop her off at her grandmother’s.”

It’s Boxley’s night off from her second job. She’s dreading having to tell her boss in the human resources office at a Macy’s store that she needs a second night off for a back-to-school event at Emerson.

Three or four evenings during the week, she works four-hour shifts at the store. She pulls eight-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays three weekends a month.

“My daughter always says, ‘Mom, I never get to see you. Can you just sit down a minute?’ I feel like you don’t get any do-overs — that valuable time I’m missing truly hurts,” said Boxley. “But if I’m not going to do this for them, who will? I just really want all of my children, biologically and not, to have everything they need to be successful.”

Even with her husband’s income, Boxley said, for the last six or seven years she has not been able to go without a second job, and they still live paycheck to paycheck.

Boxley laments all of the hard-earned money she has to spend on classroom supplies for students. For example, the school’s math curriculum has a five-page list of required materials, but Boxley only has about one-third, including some she has accumulated over her 22-year teaching career.

“I make $42,000 a year. I think that is very sad. I worked at the post office when I was in college, and I made more as a temporary employee than I do now with a master’s degree plus 30 (additional college credit hours) and more than 20 years’ experience,” Boxley said. “And it’s not just that I think about making more money, but I think about what it would be like if we just had all of the materials we need for our classrooms.”

State issues, local control

Average teacher pay in Oklahoma is about $45,000, compared to the $49,700 average for the six surrounding states.

Almost 15 percent of that pay, or about $6,600, is money the average Oklahoma teacher never sees in paychecks because that is the portion used to pay for mandatory retirement and individual health insurance benefits.

While the state sets teacher salary minimums every year, actual teacher pay is determined by local school boards.

The result is that teacher salaries vary widely, and districts have to keep tabs on their neighbors if they want to remain competitive to retain employees and recruit new applicants.

Bixby Public Schools is the Tulsa-area leader in starting pay for teachers, at $34,700 for a first-year teacher with bachelor’s degree. By comparison, the state required minimum is $31,600 and Tulsa Public Schools starts teachers at $32,900. Those figures include district-paid retirement contributions.

The trend dates to six years ago, when this growing suburb to the south scrubbed its budgets to offer teachers an across-the-board $3,000 raise.

“That year we had 297 teachers in the district. The cost of the raise, including (all) payroll burdens was $1.2 million,” said Superintendent Kyle Wood. “This was a significant commitment on the part of our board of education and our staff to increase instructional time for students by 30 minutes and raise teacher salaries. I wish it could have been more, and I wish we could do it again.”

Even with the initial offer of top dollar, Bixby has seen its applicant pool shrink considerably as Oklahoma’s teacher shortage deepened.

School district leaders say teacher salary schedules with little room for salary advancement — which also lag those in surrounding states — are just not sustainable.

Leaders at the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association say they agreed with a request from new Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist to spend the next year studying cutting-edge, alternative pay schemes, like Dallas school district’s new plan to pay teachers $50,000 to start, with the ability to advance to as much as $90,000 in a decade based on performance.

Frank Cooper, a 2014 state teacher of the year finalist, had a lucrative career as a lawyer for seven years before walking away to become a teacher at Sand Springs’ Charles Page High School.

Twenty-three years later, he says he couldn’t in good conscience recommend the profession to any of his three children.

“Even though you make a decision to go into something that’s not lucrative, it doesn’t mean your efforts shouldn’t be rewarded commensurate to their value to our society,” Cooper said. “I have a lot of friends who are envious of what I do. They say, ‘Man I would love to be a teacher, but I can’t afford it.’”

With a doctorate and more than two decades’ experience, the social studies and religion teacher’s base salary is about $47,000, according to the statewide teacher database. That’s $1,000 more than Oklahoma’s required minimum, and $10,000 to $11,000 less for equivalent teachers in Coffeyville and Siloam Springs, just over the Kansas and Arkansas borders.

“I could not do what I do without the support of my wife, who still works as a lawyer and is the main breadwinner,” Cooper said. “She’s very supportive of what I do and always says, ‘If you think it’s important for your students to have, you get it.’ A lot of people don’t have that.”

Non-salary supports

Siloam Springs is one of a host of northwest Arkansas school districts that report regular success in recruiting away northeastern Oklahoma teachers.

And those recruits say it’s not just the significant pay raises that lure them away.

Alishia Morris just started teaching fourth grade at Siloam Springs’ Southside Elementary. In the previous six years, she taught in Adair County at Westville, where her husband grew up and still teaches, and where their son attends school.

“It wasn’t the school’s fault. If it was, it wouldn’t have been so difficult for me to leave. It’s just that Arkansas has more resources — they just make teaching easier,” Morris said.

On top of a salary increase of $8,000 to $9,000 over the $33,500 she made at Westville, Morris now has reading and math facilitators to help her with her students, and Siloam Springs teachers get a $500 annual allowance for classroom materials.

But the main draws for her were opportunities for professional development from a mentor teacher and Arkansas’ online system.

“I knew that I was probably as good as I was going to get in Oklahoma, and if I wanted to grow, I had to leave,” Morris said. “I live five minutes from the Arkansas line. My travel distance is the same — about 15 miles. I just go north now instead of south.”

Her new colleague at Southside Elementary is Cindy McDonald, a special-education teacher who recently left the Oaks-Mission school in rural Delaware County after five years and worked as a paraprofessional at Colcord Public Schools for nine years previously.

She marvels not only at her $7,000 pay increase over her previous $33,500, but also at the fact that she is only expected to serve 11 students in grades 3 and 4 and has help from three paraprofessionals. In Oaks-Mission, her class load was 30-plus students including some with severe disabilities including autism, in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“I heard they hired a guy from California to take the position, and he didn’t even last a week,” McDonald said. “When I was hired there, I replaced two people, and they never hired a second teacher. I was given $100 (for supplies) my first year at Oaks and never any more. I was digging into my paycheck all the time because I wanted my kids to have the things they needed.”

Her new 20-minute commute is shorter than her 30-minute drive to Oaks-Mission, and she could have earned more if she had been willing to commute 45 minutes.

“Springdale has been calling me and that would have been another $10,000 instead of $7,000, but it’s a lot farther,” McDonald said. “I don’t want to hurt Oklahoma, but if I know there’s an opening, I’ll text someone I know. I’m not seeing short staffing here at all.

“I’m like, wow, we have so much support.”

Financial insecurity

Back in Tulsa, Thornton and Ayers said they earned about $28,000 before taxes during their first year at Emerson Elementary in 2004-05. Eleven years later, their gross salaries are $37,000.

In the years in between, both have consistently failed to make ends meet because of financial hardships and mounting debts.

Right after college, Ayers had back surgery, which permanently debilitated her and landed her in court because she couldn’t afford the minimum payments on her mountain of hospital bills.

“My doctors said I should go on disability. I can’t walk very far or stand very long, but I want to be a teacher — if I can’t teach, I’m not sure I even want to be alive,” Ayers said.

For a full year when her wages were being garnished to cover those medical debts, Ayers lived in a 1966 RV with no running water or heat source. “Nobody at school knew,” Thornton said.

They’re not the only teachers in their professional circles who struggle with consistent housing and food.

Both saw co-workers getting groceries during their few visits to John 3:16 Mission. Thornton said one of her colleagues had to live with her mother for an extended period of time because of financial difficulties, and Ayers works with a single mother struggling badly to support herself and two children.

Thornton herself has floundered trying to raise her now-16-year-old son alone on her salary, plus a little income from one or two extra jobs at a time.

“I don’t get child support, and his insurance alone is $216 a month. Even the littlest hiccup can mess things up — like I needed a new tire and then my license is coming up for renewal. You’re just screwed,” said Thornton.

Both Thornton and Ayers have diabetes and related, ongoing medical costs. To cope with their financial difficulties, they both teach summer school and take on extra-duty assignments during the school year to increase their take-home pay.

It just never seems to be enough.

“It is literally robbing Peter to pay Paul and sometimes, Peter doesn’t have any money,” Ayers said Monday, in her new sixth-grade classroom at Clinton Middle School, where she recently transferred. “I have $6 and no gas in my car until Friday (payday).”

Ayers donates plasma twice a week to bring in an extra $65. Both she and Thornton regularly carry payday and signature loan balances, and they both had their cars repossessed last year.

For a couple of years, Thornton worked three to four days a week as a private tutor to bring in an extra $200 to $300 a month, but quit to keep closer tabs on her adolescent son.

“Probably half of the teachers I worked with at the Owasso Sylvan Learning Center were Tulsa Public Schools teachers,” she said.

She ended up losing her house to foreclosure two years ago, which was a devastating blow, both personally and professionally.

“That’s when I lost my principal’s support,” Thornton said, as her eyes welled up. “I think she lost faith in me and probably questioned my decision-making ability.”

Thornton also transferred from Emerson this summer. To make up for the stipend she had earned as Emerson’s lead third-grade teacher, she has taken on crosswalk duty before and after school every day at her new school, Key Elementary in south Tulsa.

Thornton burst into tears when she confessed that as soon as her son turned 16 last winter, he had to go to work in a fast-food restaurant to help cover their utility bills. Over the summer, they had a roommate to help make rent, but for seven straight months, Thornton has received eviction notices for late payments.

This month, she doesn’t have enough to cover the payment. So after school, she and her son have been packing their belongings and looking for other housing.

Low-cost options in Owasso are scarce, and Thornton is adamant that her son remain in school there because she worries he won’t graduate without the special-education services he receives.

“I don’t know how long it takes. I’ve never been evicted before,” Thornton said, choking back sobs.

Oklahoma's required minimum compensation for teachers

Years experience  Bachelor's degree   Master's degree  Doctorate
 0$31,600  $32,800 $34,000
 5$33,500  $34,700 $35,900
 10$35,950  $37,575 $39,625
 15$38,075 $39,700  $41,750
 20$40,200 $41,825  $43,875

* Salary and employee's share of retirement, if paid by the district

Source: Oklahoma State Dept. of Education 2015-16

Andrea Eger 918-581-8470