For Lacey Nelson, the weeks before school starts are a blur of spreadsheets, meetings, and calls from principals about last-minute teacher resignations.
With less than two weeks to go, the director of talent acquisition at Denver Public Schools is still looking to hire 150 teachers, 275 paraprofessionals and up to 45 bus drivers. Priorities are reassessed daily based on reports from the field. A school that was doing “good” two days ago suddenly needs two more teachers.
Everything is completely normal.
“In general, we don’t see anything different this school year than school years past, and I don’t see anything that’s really off,” Nelson said. “It’s been a pretty quiet year.”
Even though school districts in Colorado hold on-site job fairs and offer signing bonusesmany education officials told Chalkbeat that the challenges were nothing new and vacancies and hiring were similar to those of previous years.
Nikki Jost, executive director of human resources for District 51 in the Valley of Mesa County in western Colorado, said hiring is improving this year.
“COVID protocols are different than years past, we’ve had a 9.1% salary increase for returning employees, we’ve increased starting salaries across the board, we’ve increased our social media presence and we have amazing recruiters,” she wrote in response to a Chalkbeat survey.
But normal does not mean full.
According to Teacher Shortage Report 2021-2022, Colorado schools were unable to fill 8% of their open teaching positions last year or 17% of their special service provider positions. About 9% of paraprofessional or classroom assistant positions have not been filled. The number of unfilled positions, as well as the share filled by shortage mechanisms such as bring back retired educators or the hiring of teachers with an emergency license, has increased over the past three years, even as the total number of openings has declined, according to the report.
It is difficult to obtain reliable data on vacancies this year, both locally and nationally. In the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, the numbers change daily. In 10 Colorado districts large and small that responded to Chalkbeat’s inquiries, superintendents and human resource managers said they had increased salaries, improved benefits and made other changes in an effort to to be competitive.
Denver touts its health insurance plan, which is completely free for employees. Brighton-based District 27J is telling job applicants about its four-day week and investments in mental health supports that take some of the load off of teachers. Many districts offer on-the-job training and licensing assistance.
Bus drivers and special education jobs — teachers, special service providers and especially classroom assistants — remain among the toughest positions to fill, officials said. And these vacancies have hit children and families hard.
As Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn described, “our traditionally hard-to-fill positions are getting harder to fill.”
APS and Cherry Creek officials say that currently bus drivers and paraprofessionals are among their most needed positions.
“We are in better shape this year than last for bus drivers, although we are still hiring,” Cherry Creek spokesman Abbe Smith said in an email. “We are always hiring paras, especially special education paras.”
The district’s employment website currently lists half a dozen transportation-related positions and several dozen openings for para-educators across the district.
APS spokesman Corey Christiansen said that like other employers and districts in the metro area, the district is currently receiving fewer applicants.
“The majority of our openings are for classified support positions which include paraeducators, bus drivers and custodial staff,” he said in an email. “We are working aggressively and creatively to address shortages.”
Munn said APS is in many ways in the same place in terms of personnel as it was this time last year. However, he said he expects teachers to be sick less often this year than last year, when quarantines and fewer substitute teachers led employees in the administration office from the district to show up one day a week to teach during the spring semester.
School districts face fierce competition for bus drivers
Many Colorado districts are consolidating bus routes and cutting service in response to driver shortages.
“Last year, we consolidated bus routes and added a non-CDL position, allowing employees in this position to drive smaller vans on many routes,” said Myla Shepherd, human resources manager for Adams 12. Five Star Schools serving the northern suburbs of Denver. “These two measures have greatly assisted us in maintaining adequate transportation staffing levels.
In 27J, employees and mechanics of the transportation office must drive bus routes in addition to their other job duties, and students were placed on waiting lists for bus service. About 10% of the 100 bus driver positions are open there.
At Jeffco Public Schools, nearly a third of the 283 bus driver positions were open less than two weeks before the start of the school year. In a July email to families, Jeffco Chief Operating Officer Steve Bell outlined a plan to gradually restore bus lines as more drivers are hired and trained. In the meantime, students with disabilities would continue to have the highest priority.
Trevor Byrne, a Jeffco bus driver and president of the Jefferson County Transportation Association, the union representing drivers, said the bottom line is pay. Even with a recent wage increase to $21.70 an hour, drivers have plenty of options that pay more. Byrne said he stayed because he enjoyed working with children.
“I’m not bashing sanitation workers, but you can make $35 an hour driving a garbage truck,” Byrne said. “How important is it to transport our children with special needs rather than removing trash from someone’s house?
Nelson, of Denver Public Schools, agreed.
“You think Amazon, they need drivers,” she said. “The Post Office, FedEx, UPS, they all need drivers.”
Denver has salary increase and like many districts pays for driver training and offers signing bonuses. Drop a vaccination mandate that led some workers to quit last year also helped, Nelson said.
Special education jobs have been experiencing shortages for years
Superintendents and directors of human resources said jobs with students with disabilities continue to be among the hardest to fill. Special service providers like occupational therapists and speech language pathologists can earn more money in private practice. Teacher assistants can make more money in the retail business. And there simply aren’t enough specialist teachers for all the vacancies.
In an offer for experienced educators, Adams 12 is now offering unlimited credit for years of service in other districts to special education teachers and special service providers.
Special education paraprofessionals have been particularly difficult to hire. These educators provide individual and small group support to students with various disabilities, including students with complex physical and emotional needs. Often these jobs combine low pay with significant responsibilities.
Lori Williams, a special education assistant at Jeffco, said understaffing makes it harder to give students the support they deserve.
“We’re supposed to push them into a general education class and sometimes we can’t because we’re understaffed,” she said. “And other times, students who are in a general education class don’t get the support they need.”
Denver just raised pay for special education paratroopers from $16.50 an hour to $21 an hour and saw hiring resume. As of Tuesday, the district still had 137 special para-educator positions to fill.
“A lot of times they’re working one-on-one with a very high-needs student, and they need additional training and qualifications,” Nelson said. “Finding someone with the qualifications – not just the qualifications on paper, but the skills to do this job – can be really difficult.
“When you make $16.50, it’s easy on that bad day to turn around and apply for something else.”
Even a few vacancies can make a difference
Staffing challenges vary by community and even within districts. One school may operate normally while another has parent volunteers serving cold meals.
Marty Gutierrez, a middle school math teacher at Adams 12, said there were four out of 40 open teaching positions in his building, including teachers who took time off in August to take better-paying or less stressful jobs. , often still within the framework of education.
“People can go wherever they want because there are so many openings,” he said.
This means that he starts the year not knowing who his planning partners will be, if he will get his planning periods or if he will have to take additional courses. And he fears it will be more difficult to set expectations and standards for students and establish a strong school culture if there is a rotating cast of substitutes in multiple classes.
In addition to two science teachers, a math teacher and a special education teacher, her school lost its main caretaker over the summer. These are all positions for which districts are reporting difficulty in hiring.
“It affects us from top to bottom,” Gutierrez said.
Chris Selle, superintendent of the Meeker district of 681 students in northwest Colorado, said until this year it has always been fully staffed in August. But this summer, three teachers terminated their contracts and the principal of the primary school resigned. In a small district, losing a teacher can mean doubling the class size for that grade or subject.
This week, Selle and the school board decided not to try to fill the position of elementary director this school year. Instead, Selle will run the primary school while carrying out his duties as superintendent.
“Some things just won’t get done,” he said.
— SENTINEL JOURNALIST CARINA JULIG CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT