While the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District may be an appealing district for new teachers to begin their careers, the teacher turnover rate in the district has become a concern to the Santa Monica Malibu Classroom Teachers Association union.

There are currently about 625 teachers in the district, which is home to about 12,000 students.

But there has been a ten to 15 percent teacher turnover rate annually for the past few years as the cost of living has skyrocketed on the Westside, says Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association president Harry Keiley.

“In the last three years alone, we’ve lost more than 240 teachers,” says the union president. “Some of them to retirement, but a lot of them simply grew frustrated with the high cost of renting apartments and not being able to purchase a home anywhere near where they work.”

At the end of the 2006-2007 school year, 16 teachers left the district because they were relocating, said Mike Matthews, assistant superintendent for human resources for the district.

There were also 30 teachers who retired.

Seventy new teachers were hired this year for the 2007-2008 school year, Matthews said.

This has become a concern of the teachers union and Keiley, who believes the teacher turnover rate is too high.

The starting salary for a teacher fresh out of college is about $44,000 a year.

“Quite frankly, if you’re a new teacher and making a new teacher salary and paying $1,400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, there’s only so long you can afford to do that or choose to do that,” Keiley says.

Sarah Braff, who has been a teacher at Will Rogers Learning Community in Santa Monica for 19 years, agrees.

“If I hadn’t bought my condo 19 years ago, I wouldn’t be able to live here,” she says. “Absolutely not. I couldn’t even think about it.”

And Braff says she’s noticed an increase in the teacher turnover rate over the last five to seven years.

“To see these really good teachers hitting their stride in their prime not being able to teach our students because they’re unable to afford to remain in the Santa Monica neighborhood is really sad to see and really hurts my heart,” Braff says.

Keiley says the problem is not attracting talented, highly qualified teachers to the district.

“What we’re concerned with is the growing number of teachers that are unable to make the teaching profession a middle-class career here in Santa Monica,” he says.

Also, because of the “loss of really affordable rental units on the Westside, the dream of ownership is exactly that for Santa Monica teachers — a dream,” Keiley says, pointing out that it’s also the same for other professionals, like nurses, firefighters and police officers. “Homeownership for a lot of us is out of reach.”

Keiley says he has noticed a lot of teachers choosing to leave the profession or teach in other districts where the cost of housing is not as high as it is on the Westside.

Eric Paul, who taught at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica for nine years, is an example.

Paul and his wife Karol relocated over the summer to Lakewood, Colorado with their seven-month-old daughter.

“We wanted to raise her in a house and that’s just impossible on the Westside,” Paul said from his home in Colorado. “I don’t know any teacher my age that can afford to buy a house anywhere on the Westside. We [my wife and I] both decided we wanted to find a more long-term solution.

“Now we have a nice big house that we paid $250,000 for and we have a yard and a neighborhood and everything that we wanted, which was impossible out there.”

Paul said the decision was difficult because he really loved the Santa Monica-Malibu district, but he said his wife and he had to make the choice for their daughter.

Paul points out that it was no fault of the school district.

“They treated me well and I had an excellent career there,” Paul said. “I would’ve loved to stay. I was very sad to go.”

Paul, who thinks it takes several years of teaching for teachers to hit their stride, says teacher turnover is an economic issue that “really erodes the quality of education.”

When a teacher who has been with the district for several years leaves, “what the district loses in experience is really significant and very costly all the way around,” Paul says. “It’s costly economically, but the cost to the students is huge. You can’t just replace me with somebody who doesn’t have any experience and expect to get even close to the results that I was getting.”

Braff says, “Something’s got to give.”

She thinks the city needs to look into subsidizing housing — and that the district needs to look into increasing salaries, especially in the ten- to 20-year experience range, and make sure teachers are getting a cost of living increase each year.

Braff also says it is important to have teachers who stick around.

“We lose money when we don’t have teachers that stay,” Braff says. “We invest a lot of training in them. When we lose those teachers after a few years, what’s happening is, we’re [the district is] losing our experience and we have to start again with a new teacher, new training. And that’s expensive.”

After teachers have been with the district ten to 20 years, “that’s a point where you really want to keep a teacher,” says Braff. “They’re fully trained. And that’s a point where our salaries dip compared to other school districts in the county. We do okay with starting and ending salaries, but the middle gets ignored.”

The average annual salary for teachers in the district is $67,000, but it takes 21 years to reach the maximum teacher salary of $86,500, Keiley says.

“We will never be able to afford to pay teachers what they deserve; however, it should not take two decades for classroom teachers to reach the maximum salary,” Keiley says.

“We believe that, collectively, we should be able to address this and try to find solutions so teachers that come to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District can afford to stay and actually have a middle-class career in our school district.”

Matthews says teacher turnover is not a new issue but is a significant one for the district.

“Nationwide, you are seeing teachers in the first five to ten years leaving the profession,” Matthews says, noting that teaching is not an easy task.

Matthews points out that “a lot of teachers we hire are not brand-new teachers,” but ones with experience.

He also notes that hundreds of hours of support are provided to new teachers who he says also bring “new energy” to the district.

Still, Matthews said, “We would love to see a lower rate of turnover.”