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Minnesota school districts feel high demand, fewer applicants leave vacancies

For most of Patricia Hand’s seven years as principal of Fridley High School, her team of teachers and support staff approaching September was assembled in mid-June. This year, with four weeks to go until the first day of school, Hand is still scrambling to hire.

And she’s worried about what that might mean for students.

“When you’re not complete, the whole system suffers,” Hand said.

Several Minnesota school districts say they are grappling with higher vacancies than last summer. And while most vacancies are for paraeducators and other support staff, the ripple effect means students with the most acute learning needs will have the fewest resources.

Staffing shortages in other states are causing policymakers and school leaders to make adjustments to ensure there’s a teacher in every class come fall. Some districts in rural Texas are moving to four-day weeks, while Florida will allow military veterans to teach for up to five years without further accreditation.

The abundance of vacancies in Minnesota schools is nothing new. The State Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Council, in a 2021 study, found that 70% of districts reported experiencing teacher shortages in the 2019-20 school year, and more than a quarter said they left at least one position vacant.

As school districts have seen an infusion of federal aid intended to address the educational and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on students, they navigate one of the toughest hiring environments they have ever faced. been confronted.

The Anoka-Hennepin and Saint-Paul districts began this summer with 450 openings each, or around 6 and 8% of their workforce. In St. Paul, the total number of vacancies was 284 last year.

The Rosemont-Apple Valley-Eagan district had 229 openings at the start of the summer, up 64 from the same period last year. District spokesman Tony Taschner said about 5% of teaching positions and 13% of paraeducational positions are vacant.

Minneapolis Public Schools officials declined a Star Tribune’s request for vacancy numbers. The district said there were “1,000 employee transactions” that needed processing as of early summer. Spokeswoman Crystina Lugo-Beach said the district began its hiring process later than usual this year due to the mid-year budget adjustment following the spring teachers’ strike.

The injection of federal cash coupled with competitive wages from other employers and growing challenges within the profession have combined to create a perfect storm: District officials have the money to hire staff, but have less more candidates than expected for these vacancies.

In Anoka-Hennepin, for example, district leaders have set aside more than $940,000 to hire remedial math and English teachers and about $5 million to hire individual tutors. None of these positions existed last year.

A National Education Association survey of 3,600 educators nationwide found that more than half were considering leaving the profession. Although some researchers say worries about a massive teacher shortage are overblown, experts say increasingly hostile public attitudes toward educators are making it difficult to both recruit and retain teachers.

“The environment for them, some of them have chosen not to come back,” said Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

For positions like paraeducators — entry-level school workers who provide specific services ranging from language translation and tutoring to classroom management and computer lab support — managers are jostling for a position with foodservice restaurants fast and gas stations that offer similar or higher wages in many of the less stressful jobs.

“Some districts have had great success filling their para positions, but it has come with a lot of extra work and extra compensation,” Henton said.

At Fridley, Hand said job applicants from previous years had been interviewed after doing their research on the school they were applying to and might even have spoken to a current employee to familiarize themselves with the terrain.

“Now the mentality is more like, ‘What do you got for me?'” she said. “We need to market our schools more than we have done in the past.”

Henton said about 9 out of 10 districts in the metro area are still struggling to fill vacancies. She and Hand said the biggest shortfall was in support staff, ranging from paraprofessionals to cleaners and secretaries.

When those positions go unfilled, Henton said, educators take on a heavier workload. They may be asked to support another teacher during their preparation period, or they will spend more time before or after school grading assignments.

The hand is falling from a secretary. And while that means other office staff taking on an extra job or two, it’s up to her and her assistant manager to fill in the gaps.

“It’s a bit of a juggling act,” she said.

Henton said the current series of staffing challenges require long-term investments in education — including some measures the state legislature failed to pass in the last session.

The association of school administrators’ legislative plan for next year includes a request for additional funding to bolster the salaries of educators and support staff. Henton said she also wants policymakers at the state and federal levels to consider canceling student loans for new and current teachers. Henton and district leaders say diversity should also be matched by those efforts.

Hand, who is white, said she recruits applicants from diverse backgrounds to ensure that every child in Fridley District – where 45% of students are black and 15% are Latino – has at least one educator who can relate to their lived experiences.

“You don’t want to see every Pattie in every English class,” Hand said.

Despite the challenges of navigating the shallow depths of this year’s talent pool, Hand said she’s optimistic about the school year ahead.

Around this time last year, district leaders across the state were rewriting mask policies as the spread of the delta variant caused an increase in COVID infections. In January, Fridley, like other districts, had to switch to remote learning as staff members fell ill left and right, leaving wide gaps in staffing.

“Last year was my toughest year as an educator,” Hand said. “I won’t have to say that this year. I just know I won’t have to.”

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