Marge Spencer retired as a principal from North Platte Public Schools, but like many teachers and administrators, never left education.
She’s now the president of the school board in Brady, a tiny village of 413 people nestled along the Platte River in Lincoln County, and a mentor to aspiring teachers getting their feet wet in classrooms from Gothenburg to Ogallala.
As one of 35 student teacher supervisors contracted by the University of Nebraska at Kearney to monitor and guide the next generation of educators in schools that dot the plains, Spencer has earned a reputation for her efforts.
“I’m called the ‘Out West,’” she said.
On a far-ranging loop on Nebraska’s highways and byways to observe student teachers at McCook and Palisade before returning home to Brady, Spencer can drive 230 miles in a single trip. She made that trip five times in one semester, putting thousands of miles on her personal vehicle.
UNK’s contingent of student teacher supervisors, which includes retired educators such as Spencer or stay-at-home parents in unique geographic areas, drove approximately 54,500 miles to observe more than 100 teachers in 2016-17, according to Sheryl Feinstein, dean of the College of Education.
NU staff were reimbursed 51 cents per mile that year, Feinstein said, just less than the state Department of Administrative Services rate of 53.5 cents per mile.
But in the first round of spending cuts enacted by NU last year to trim $30 million from its budget, the university slashed its mileage reimbursement rate for all employees to 25 cents per mile.
That's in contrast to the rate increase allowed by Administrative Services this year, which rose to 54.5 to align it with the IRS standard. The Administrative Services rate is the upward limit for all state agencies.
NU administrators estimated the university's mileage rate reduction will save as much as $550,000 per year, while also acknowledging it may put added strain on employees such as Spencer who use their personal vehicles for work-related purposes.
“We had a number of emails from people expressing some unhappiness or an unwillingness to continue with that rate,” Feinstein said. “They aren’t blaming the NU system — when your budget is cut to the degree it’s been cut, you have to make dramatic changes — but it’s just really tough on programs.”
Feinstein added that UNK aims to serve rural Nebraska by placing student teachers in small school districts. The student teachers benefit from the close-knit school, and those rural districts are able to recruit the incoming educators to replace retiring teachers.
“It can be a win-win for the student (teacher) and the district,” she said. “We’re committed to that, and there’s something to be said about physically observing those students in the classroom, and this change can jeopardize that.”
UNL placed an average of 300 student teachers each of the last three years, according to Sara Skretta, the College of Education and Human Sciences’ teacher certification officer, with about 6 in 10 of those students requesting and receiving a placement in Lincoln Public Schools.
The rest of those students ask to go to districts other than LPS, requiring some of UNL’s 50-60 student teacher supervisors to travel to those schools five or six times a semester.
“The reduction in the UNL mileage reimbursement has been and could continue to be challenging as the location of the student teacher dictates the mileage incurred,” Skretta said in an email. “It is not uncommon in many areas of Nebraska for a supervisor to drive between 30-50 miles one-way to reach a school.”
While no supervisors have turned down an assignment under the new reimbursement rate, Skretta said “most supervisors have experienced a dramatic reduction in their overall compensation as a result.”
NU is working in other areas to reduce the number of miles driven by its employees by encouraging use of its fleet of vehicles or in embracing technology to close the mileage gap in some cases.
Many of the student teacher supervisors who live in Kearney are able to sign up for a university vehicle they can drive to observe classrooms, said Vic Young, who coordinates UNK’s network of partner schools, although those signups take place on a first-come, first-served basis.
Nebraska Extension, which employs 179 educators across the state, acquired 26 federal surplus vehicles for its educators to use, particularly on longer trips, according to Dean Chuck Hibberd.
Extension offices often work with counties to develop travel budgets for work inside the county borders, Hibberd said, while the state pays for travel between counties or to statewide meetings and conferences.
Using the newly acquired surplus vehicles could help scale back mileage claims between 50 and 75 percent, he estimated, potentially saving $146,000 per year.
UNL also bought 71 Logitech Connect video-conferencing units for extension offices to give committees more latitude in teleconferencing or for individual educators to serve their clientele throughout the state.
Although she has an “easy” semester this year — a jaunt east to Gothenburg, a stop in neighboring Maxwell and a short trip to North Platte — Spencer said she’ll keep an eye on how the 25-cent mileage reimbursement rate is affecting her bottom line.
“It’s not good,” she said, adding that the university has worked hard to shorten the trips for many of its supervisors, “but I’m going to keep going.”
“Any time you go into education, if you’re going in for the pay, you’ve got the wrong attitude,” Spencer added.