Education

Schools report they’re struggling to hire. But it’s been bad for years.

Ninth-grade students socially distance themselves while sitting in their own folding chairs rather than desks in Emily Gilmore’s World History class in South Burlington High School on Friday, September 11, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Administrators in the Slate Valley Unified School District in western Rutland county had a tall task this summer: fill 73 vacancies.

And, speaking from her office late Tuesday morning, superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said she’d just gotten more bad news. Two more staff members would be leaving the district.

“I have never seen it this bad in the 22 years I’ve been in education,” she said. For context, she added, the district has about 270 people on staff, and only a little over a dozen educators turned over last summer.

It is hard to say with any degree of certainty, at this point, how bad the education labor market is in Vermont right now. Data is still coming in, and inconclusive for now. But school officials say pre-pandemic workforce woes feel as if they’ve only gotten worse.

Retention data for last year is not yet available from the Agency of Education. The state also processes requests for temporary licenses when districts can’t fill positions with fully licensed teachers, but the number of those granted within the last six weeks is on par with the number granted over that same period in 2020 and 2019. (Agency data does indicate a nearly two-fold increase in provisional licenses granted in that same period between 2018 and 2019. But Patrick Halladay, director of education quality, said there’s a possibility that’s a record-keeping error.)

Retirement data is also hard to interpret. Significantly fewer teachers have reported to the treasurer’s office that they are retiring this July compared to last. But 2020 had an unusually high number of retirements. And the deadline to report July data to the treasurer’s office isn’t until next week, so they could rise.

Still, many administrators across the state report having more difficulty than ever hiring staff this summer. Like Olsen-Farrell, they cite a slew of factors. Pandemic burnout led some to leave teaching, they say, and some educators, nervous about coming pension reform, took jobs in other states. New positions created by a glut of federal aid, they also speculated, may also be further stretching an already thin labor supply.

The underlying problem, they say, is a longstanding trend. Simply, too few people are going into teaching. With the rising cost of college and the erosion of benefits, the cost-benefit analysis makes sense to a lot fewer graduates, Olsen-Farrell said. At the same time, she said, student mental health needs are only growing, and the job feels more stressful each year.

“All of this stuff is going to come to a head, but I think we need to put more value on that as a society on the wonderful work that our educators do,” said Olsen-Farrell. To try to compete, the district has started offering $5,000 signing bonuses, funded with federal aid.

Talent slowdown

At North Country Union High School in Newport, principal Chris Young says the school is fully staffed for this fall, save for a driver’s education post the school has been advertising for a year. But the supervisory union, which covers 13 towns, is still searching high and low for bus drivers, and special educators have been tough to find. 

Still, while the school is in good shape heading into the fall, Young said he’s noticed the flow of talent coming into the education pipeline slowing to a trickle in recent years. Just five or ten years ago, schools could count on dozens of applicants for every open position. Now administrators count themselves lucky if five people with the requisite qualifications apply.

“It’s an absolute feeding frenzy to try to get the best candidates,” he said. To act quickly, the district has truncated its vetting process in an effort to nab applicants before they accept positions elsewhere.

Of particular concern: special education teachers. Administrators the state over perennially report struggling to find — and keep — educators to work with Vermont’s most vulnerable students. And licensing data reflects this.

“We have twice as many special education provisional (licenses) granted than the second most common one,” said Halladay.

Erin Maguire, director of equity and inclusion in the Essex-Westford School District, said that while her district is fully staffed for special education teachers heading into the fall, her colleagues in poorer and rural districts are struggling intensely to hire. And even in Essex-Westford, behavioral interventionists, speech-language pathologists, and paraeducators remain tough to find.

The shortage in special education is a countrywide problem, notes Maguire, who is also president of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, a national professional organization.

“I really do not see this as something individual (districts) can solve. I think we need a state and a federal plan related to this,” she said. (The Agency of Education, incidentally, distributed a survey to districts this week on the subject of special education workforce shortages.)

Unspent cash?

To help with pandemic recovery, Vermont’s schools have collectively received nearly half a billion in federal cash. But spending it could be tough.

“It is worth noting that schools in our area are likely not going to be hiring teams of additional teachers to assist with recovery from Covid,” said Julie Regimbal, superintendent in the Missisquoi Valley School District. “Mostly because there is a teacher shortage in our communities and the additional qualified professionals are not there.”

Schools in poorer and more rural parts of the state have long struggled to recruit and retain educators, and often lose staff to Chittenden County area districts. But even in South Burlington, which offers teachers some of the state’s highest salaries, some administrators report a pinch. 

Patrick Burke, the principal at South Burlington High, said he’d had one candidate accept a job as a computer science teacher and later back out when he couldn’t find housing. (The applicant’s wife was also offered a job elsewhere.) 

The high school is now “scrambling,” he said, and hoping another candidate, with a provisional license, will accept the district’s offer. 

“I may have to mothball the entire comp sci program, which has 100% full classes right now,” Burke wrote.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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