The pressure is on.
Idaho school districts are hustling to fill vacancies for teachers, bus drivers, custodians — and especially paraprofessionals — before students arrive in a matter of days. Most districts have the staff they need to welcome students, but they’ll take more. As nearly every district would tell the public: We’re hiring.
“It’s just a mad scramble,” said Brady Dickinson, the superintendent for the Twin Falls School District.
According to its most recent information, the district has 13.5 teacher vacancies and 82 classified vacancies.
“It’s rough,” Dickinson said. “It’s the hardest year we’ve had.”
In June, the State Board of Education reported that there were at least 700 teacher vacancies across the state, which was unusual for the time of year. On top of that, the hiring pool was shallower than usual. The State Board dubbed it a crisis.
With the new school year just around the corner, most districts say they have enough teachers to get by, even if it meant some last-minute emergency hires. But many have struggled to hire support staff — especially paraprofessionals, who assist schools’ most high-need students.
Districts around the state are doing what they can to hire and retain staff — offering raises and bonuses, attending and hosting hiring fairs, and recruiting more aggressively. But in some cases, those efforts are still falling short.
With no four-year universities nearby, Twin Falls is a hiring island
Twin Falls is welcoming 70 new teachers this year, 40 of whom are either first-year teachers, hold nontraditional, provisional teaching licenses, or are emergency hires. The district has 530 teachers, but the number of new hires is large compared to previous years.
And there are still vacancies. Dickinson attributes part of the difficulty finding teachers to Twin Falls’ distance from four-year universities and not having the teacher pipeline that some communities have.
“I’ve always had elementary (teacher) positions filled in June,” Dickinson said recently. “I still need 8.5 positions. That’s just unheard of.”
Dickinson has resorted to hiring alternatively-certified teachers earlier than usual and has had to make emergency hires, which he was eligible to start doing after Aug. 1. Those hires must have at least 48 college credits completed but don’t have to have a bachelor’s degree. They are expected to finish the degree in their first year.
Dickinson pointed out the irony that last school year, 36 Twin Falls students graduated with an associate’s degree.
“They’d technically all be eligible to be emergency hires,” he said.
If he’s not able to fill the teacher vacancies before school starts, Dickinson said he’ll have to get creative in terms of increasing class sizes, transferring teachers, canceling elective classes and/or encouraging students to enroll in classes with Idaho Digital Learning Alliance.
And then there’s the classified positions.
The district has 20 food service openings, 8 custodial openings and 38 paraprofessional openings.
Paraprofessionals have been hard to find because they must have an associate’s degree or pass a certain test, yet they often make less than other entry-level positions.
Last year the district offered $1,000 retention bonuses for paras who finished the year. ESSER funds helped pay for the bonuses, though, so that incentive is not a long-term solution.
Low pay drives paraprofessional shortage
Other districts throughout the state are also struggling to find paraprofessionals:
- Pocatello/Chubbuck has 25 para vacancies.
- West Ada has 64 (across its 58 schools).
- Nampa has 17 (14 of which are new positions).
- Lewiston has 20-25.
“We can’t compete with the McDonald’s down the street,” was a common refrain heard at a state administrators’ conference earlier this month.
District leaders feel hamstrung by their inability to offer competitive wages for these instructional aides, and say it’s up to the Legislature to fix that.
“The wages other employers can pay presents a challenge,” said Courtney Fisher, spokesperson for the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District. “In the public sector, we can’t compete with the private sector … That needs to be addressed legislatively.”
The low pay also makes retention difficult, said Troy Easterday, superintendent for the Salmon School District. For most districts “it’s kind of a revolving door with paras. If we hire 3-4 up front, we know we’ll lose one or two throughout the year because they’ll find a better paying job.”
Paraprofessional positions do offer a schedule that aligns with that of school-age children and competitive benefits, but as Dave Roberts said, “People have to pay rent and they have to eat, and benefits don’t pay the rent and buy the food.”
Roberts, the human resources director for the West Ada School District, said the district has invested in a 15-20% pay increase for all classified staff members over the past few years, but it’s still experiencing shortages.
Paraprofessionals often help a district’s most at-risk students, including special education students, English language learners and students with physical disabilities. In some cases, the support paras provide is a legal requirement because it is part of students’ individualized education plans, or IEPs.
In-person work, low pay, location and population growth fuel hiring woes
Coeur d’Alene School District Human Resource Director Eric Davis cited increased and early retirements as one reason for the hiring difficulties. School districts also haven’t been able to offer remote work opportunities “that many people are looking for due to child care costs, transportation time and costs and lifestyle choices.”
Low pay is another reason. Idaho’s average teacher pay hit an all-time high this year, but a 2021 Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy study found that inflation wiped out gains, and that the state still trails four of its neighbors in terms of teacher pay.
“Teaching in Idaho is not a place to make a significant amount of money. We have to rely on those who chose to teach as a calling to have an impact on kids and the local community,” Davis said. “A majority of people in our area cannot afford to make that choice.”
Plus, Coeur d’Alene is just 11 miles away from a district that pays about 20% more.
“People can make a choice to commute and teach in a different state, fulfill their noble calling and still take care of their family significantly better financially, without compromising the Idaho lifestyle,” Davis said. The district has been able to fill its teacher openings each year, but it’s getting harder to do so and “it is done with increasingly less-experienced candidates.”
Lance Hansen, the superintendent for the Lewiston School District, said population growth in Idaho means the creation of new positions, so that could be another reason for a high number of vacancies.
“If the trend in (students entering) teacher education is flat, it won’t keep up with population growth and sometimes that gets overlooked,” he said.
Lewiston has three colleges within 30 miles, so it benefits from the teacher pipeline but also has to compete with Washington’s Clarkston School District.
Lewiston students start school on Aug. 24. The district, which is usually fully staffed by this point, still needs six more teachers.
Bonuses and scholarships are part of district efforts to find and retain staff
Idaho State University’s College of Education is working with the Pocatello/Chubbuck School district to help paraprofessionals earn a degree and certification to become teachers.
This year, more than 35 paras in the district were awarded full-tuition scholarships.
“This is one way to get highly qualified teachers in our classrooms,” Fisher said. “It’s been really rewarding to see the meaningful impact that this program will have.”
In July, the Buhl School District offered $4,000 signing bonuses to new teachers and has been able to get its needed positions filled.
“We’re going to be okay to get started,” said Lynn Busmann, the district’s human resources director. “We just got some people hired a few days ago. It’s been very last minute.”
The West Ada School District has been more aggressive about recruiting employees this school year. Human resources personnel have been going to job fairs, and the district will host its own classified job fair soon.
On edjobsidaho.com, where many districts post their openings, 517 vacancies were listed.
— Carly Flandro reports for Idaho Education News. This article was originally published on idahoednews.org.