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Permanent substitute teachers on school budget chopping block

Wednesday, May 14, 2008 | 6:23 p.m. CDT; updated 3:23 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Permanent substitute teacher Rhonda Kaissi explains how to create a business letter while subbing for a language arts class on May 8 at Oakland Junior High School.

COLUMBIA — The bell rings. A recognizable face is at the front of the class. Some students are happy to see substitute teacher Rhonda Kaissi, but others groan. Usually having a sub means watching a video or a free day in class, but Kaissi continues the lesson plans in each class she teaches.

Kaissi is a permanent substitute teacher. She regularly substituted for the Columbia Public School District for four years before entering the permanent sub program in 2004. Permanent subs are Columbia Public Schools employees who fill in where it may be difficult to get a part-time substitute teacher.

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“It is different because regular subs work as they wish,” Kaissi said. “It’s like extra money, so they don’t have to go to work every day of the school year. But permanent subs cannot; you’re to go to school everyday, just like the regular teachers.”

Kaissi was born in Syria and came to the U.S. in 1975 and became a citizen two years later.

“It really brings a lot of happiness and pleasure that I was able to help somebody. And for some reason, I have that magic,” Kaissi said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I guess because of my accent or something that they paid attention.”

All of the district’s 22 permanent sub positions are set to be eliminated from the budget as part of cuts to help alleviate the school district’s $10.3 million shortfall.

The district saved $180,200 by eliminating 17 of these permanent sub positions under Priority 1 cuts, which were made before the school district’s 54-cent property tax levy increase failed April 8. The remaining five positions may be cut for an additional savings of $53,000. A draft of the budget was reviewed at the Columbia School Board meeting on May 12, and it must be finalized by June 30.

Mary Laffey, the district’s human resources assistant superintendent, said the cuts of permanent subs are necessary to maintain the number of classroom teachers and classroom size. Permanent subs are paid more than other subs, and since the district will need subs anyway, it is possible to eliminate the permanent subs to avoid cuts closer to the classroom.

“The parameters the Columbia Public Schools used for considering the Priority 1 reductions were to cut the costs that would have the least impact on the students, something far from the actual classrooms,” Laffey said.

Thinking the school system would experience a tremendous loss without permanent subs, Laffey said the Columbia Public Schools would continue to increase the regular sub pool to prevent the lack of substitute teachers. In addition, the district’s Human Resources Department will call on the education students at MU and Columbia College to help fill in for the teachers’ absences. This may lead to more turnover, however, once students receive full-time teaching positions.

Bobbie Pauley, the director of Classified Personnel for Columbia Public Schools, has been working in substitute placement since 1993 and created the permanent substitute program in September 2004.

“What you really want to happen when you have a sub in the classroom is for the teaching to go on,” Pauley said. “You don’t want it to be a free day. You want to continue the education. That’s why I hire people that can do that.”

Many of the permanent subs have their teaching certificates. Pauley said she tries to hire people who are certified in a variety of subject areas including art, music, math, physical education, special education and science. Permanent subs receive a salary of $12.14 per hour. A regular sub gets $10 per hour but can choose the school where he or she wishes to teach. That advantage is something that is important to many subs. In fact, according to Kaissi, the heightened freedom in a substitute’s job placement is a reason why many subs do not want to make the switch to permanent subbing.

Permanent subs receive the same benefits package as full-time teachers, equaling about $4,000. This includes health and dental insurance, as well as paid personal days and the ability to become vested in the retirement system after five years.

“If I didn’t need the health insurance, I would have stayed with the regular subs because the money is not much,” Kaissi said.

According to Pauley, there may be 200 to 300 regular substitutes in the district at any time, but there is still a struggle to cover teachers’ absences. In addition to filling in for teachers’ absences, the permanent subs also receive training to work as teachers’ aids or paraprofessional positions in classes such as special education.

“A lot of special education positions, they’re harder than maintaining classroom control and applying the plans,” Kaissi said. “It’s a lot harder than regular classroom setup, so I’m sure most regular subs wouldn’t take these jobs. So we’ll end up taking these jobs because they’re unfilled.”

Without any permanent substitute positions, Kaissi said the school district could see significant repercussions.

“They may think that it’s not different, ‘well, a sub is a sub,’” Kaissi said. “No, that’s not true at all. But they’ll find out, I guarantee you, in the first month of school if not before. Like I said, with 17 of us, they have problems filling positions. Without any, I can’t imagine how they’re going to survive.”


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