Fourteen years ago, Sherry Fortner was a single mom living on a Tennessee teacher's salary.
Money was short, so when she found out that, for just an hour's drive, she could earn an additional $12,000 annually doing the same teaching work in Trion, Ga., it was a no-brainer.
On the roads every morning, Fortner finds herself in good company today. Across the region, more than 700 Hamilton and Bradley County residents commute each day to teach in Georgia schools, according to teacher license data from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
Overall, about 16 percent of the teachers in the 11 Georgia counties closest to Chattanooga reside in Tennessee. In Catoosa County, the trend is amplified with roughly one-third of its teaching ranks being drawn from the Volunteer State.
For Fortner, three cars and 252,000 miles later, she couldn't imagine teaching anywhere but tiny Trion Middle School, which has just 300 students. She loves her farm-raised students and the small-town community in which she teaches.
"At the time, the pay was important to me," said Fortner, who teaches sixth grade. "But now that my daughter is grown, that's not a big factor, but I really love my school, the administrators and the students."
As with Fortner, money is one of the draws for teachers who live in Tennessee but work in Georgia. Tennessee is ranked 38th nationally in terms of teacher pay, while Georgia ranks 20th, according to estimates from the National Education Association.
That translates to a $7,000 raise for many Tennessee teachers willing to make the commute. For those with advanced degrees and experience, the pay gap is even wider.
Such is the case with Fortner, who has two master's degrees.
The trend of Tennessee teachers heading south - noticed for more than a decade - is alarming to some in Tennessee education circles who fear that the state could be losing talented educators to its neighbors.
Of the eight states that share a border with Tennessee, five have better pay. Tennessee only ranks better than Mississippi, Missouri and North Carolina, but is outranked by Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia.
"We see this problem in our urban areas on the borders, like in Chattanooga and Memphis," said Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford. "We would certainly like to be able to keep our best teachers in the state."
System / Total teachers / Tennessee residents / Percentage
Catoosa / 760 / 227 / 29.9 percent
Chickamauga City / 77 / 3 / 3.9 percent
Dade / 157 / 20 / 12.7 percent
Dalton City / 473 / 82 / 17.3 percent
Fannin / 212 / 12 / 5.7 percent
Gilmer / 349 / 6 / 1.7 percent
Gordon / 468 / 4 / 0.9 percent
Murray / 481 / 73 / 15.2 percent
Trion City / 87 / 2 / 2.3 percent
Walker / 692 / 152 / 22.0 percent
Whitfield / 851 / 161 / 18.9 percent
Overall / 4607 / 742 / 16.1 percent
Source: Georgia Professional Standards Commission
But it's not just about pay. Tennessee's lack of an income tax may encourage some teachers to work in Georgia but live here, and for many teachers, suburban schools are more desirable.
And some of the teachers - in both Tennessee and Georgia - have retired from positions in their home states and taken full-time jobs elsewhere to earn extra income.
"A factor is the urban environment in Hamilton County," Summerford said. "Right across the border in Georgia, you have more suburban environments where teachers might find it more attractive to work."
Georgia schools welcome the teachers because of the state's exponential growth. There simply aren't enough educators in many of Chattanooga's outlying communities to fill the teaching jobs.
"Enrollment in Catoosa County schools has steadily increased each year. We would not have enough qualified applicants from Catoosa County to fill all of our teaching positions, especially in special education, math and science," said Catoosa County Superintendent Denia Reese.
On top of that, there are plenty of teachers completing their degrees nearby.
"Dalton State College and [University of Tennessee at Chattanooga] both have excellent teacher-education programs, and we receive a large number of applications from their graduates who want to remain in the area," Reese said.
Stemming the tide
The Tennessee-to-Georgia migration trend is most pronounced, but the migration works the other way as well, though to a lesser extent. About 6 percent of Hamilton County's teachers are Georgia residents, according to payroll records.
Hamilton County officials say they have stemmed the tide of teachers who once fled to Georgia after teaching in Tennessee for just a few years.
Georgia collects teacher residency information only when a teacher renews his or her license. That happens every five years, though the renewals are staggered and some may have been renewed as recently as this year.
As a result, it's difficult to tell whether the Tennessee-to-Georgia migration is as strong as it once was.
Georgia shed roughly 3,000 jobs over the last three years in the wake of massive budget cuts. Danielle Clark, spokeswoman for Hamilton County Schools, said that factor, plus an overall improvement in the local teaching climate, has contributed to more teachers staying in Hamilton County.
"We've done a lot to keep teachers here," Clark said. "We have strong, consistent leadership within our schools, and that's led many teachers to stay with us."
Nevertheless, Tennessee teachers have not received a pay raise since 2007, though Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed a 1.6 percent increase effective July 1.
With gas prices rising and a reduction in some Georgia teacher benefits, such as the suspension of a $2,000 annual pay supplement for teachers who recently earned National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, some teachers are rethinking long commutes to Georgia schools, said Ernie Dempsey, a school counselor at Morris Innovative High School in Dalton, Ga.
"I have a couple of friends who are looking at jobs in Tennessee," said Dempsey, who resides in Chattanooga but is not considering a job in Tennessee. "Some look at a 45-minute drive versus a 10-minute drive and think that, with the gas prices going up, it may be a wash to drive down every day."
The TEA's Summerford predicted, though, that many of the lures Georgia had will return when the economy improves and teachers may again find themselves pulled to the Peach State.
Tennessee, like other states, has been faced with budget shortfalls in recent years, but prior to that, Tennessee was trying to bring teacher pay in line with other Southern states, said Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
"We've been committed to trying to bring up teacher pay," Watson said. "Competitive pay in any sector of the economy is important in attracting the best candidate and, prior to the recession, we believe we were on that trajectory and certainly we want to get back to that point."
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, while acknowledging Georgia's competitive pay, said teachers can be influenced by a variety of factors when deciding where to teach.
"Pay is certainly a factor for anyone when people decide where to work, and teachers are no exception," Berke said. "But teachers also want to work in schools with strong principals and dedicated parents."