Shortages drove Columbia Public Schools' move to outsource hiring substitute teachers

Friday, October 12, 2012 | 8:13 p.m. CDT; updated 4:51 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 13, 2012

COLUMBIA — Kari Schuster, a reading teacher at Smithton Middle School, was sick on a recent Friday, sick enough to ask for the day off. But no substitute could be found; Schuster said she worked anyway.

A recent decision by the Columbia School Board to outsource hiring substitute teachers is intended to make sure that doesn't happen.

The board unanimously approved an 18-month contract, to begin in January 2013, with Kelly Educational Staffing, a branch of Kelly Services. Kelly Educational Staffing specializes in providing staffing to school districts and, nationally, fills requests for substitutes 98 percent of the time on average.

Over the past 10 years, the Columbia Public School District has found substitutes to fill in for absent teachers about 92 percent of the time on average, according to a presentation made by Dana Clippard, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources, at the board's Oct. 8 meeting 

In Columbia, substitute teachers can accept or decline the positions offered to them.

If they decline, they may do so because they think they lack the necessary skills or training to walk into a classroom and fill the need, Clippard told the board. That includes, for example, using smart boards and iPads, she said.

The challenge is getting substitute teachers to take the available jobs. Based on a district survey, substitutes are pleased with the ability to accept or decline jobs and are happy with the availability of those jobs, Clippard said at the meeting.

"Finding substitutes has been more of a problem in recent years," Schuster, who also is president of the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association, said. "There are many good substitutes out there, and most buildings have regulars who the principals and secretaries can count on.

"But that doesn't take into account other factors, such as district professional development days, teachers getting sick or having to stay home with their own children, or even personal loss," Schuster said. "These often can lead to several teachers being out for an extended period of time."

In the schools

Two Mile Prairie Elementary School, on Route Z northwest of the city, has difficulty finding substitutes to fill jobs because it is farther from town and gas prices are high, principal Patti Raynor said.

Carole Garth, principal at New Haven Elementary School, said she’s heard comments from substitutes that her school, on Old 63 in the southeast part of the district, is too far away so they don’t want to come.

Once substitutes work at Two Mile Prairie, though, they learn to love it, Raynor said. She calls the same set of substitutes who work at her school "frequent fliers."

At Mill Creek Elementary School, principal Tabetha Rawlings considers her school lucky to have a pool of substitutes from which to choose. If a substitute cannot fill in, though, Rawlings or other staff members will cover a class, she said.

The same situation has happened at Midway Heights Elementary School. Principal Angie Gerzen said she and some specialists, such as art and gym teachers, have had to fill in for absent colleagues because the district couldn’t find a substitute.

At New Haven, the mentor teacher or student-teachers will fill in when substitutes don’t show, Garth said. If the mentor teacher is covering for an absent teacher, she is away from her job of providing support for newer teachers. Student-teachers, who fill in for absent teachers, are paid for their service, but they have to make up their required field time.

Sometimes, Midway Heights administrators have scheduled substitutes ahead of time knowing certain teachers will be absent because they are in professional development classes. Sometimes, administrators call those teachers back to school because substitutes called in sick or didn’t show up, Gerzen said.

Garth thinks scrambling for a substitute in the morning upsets the whole day and doesn’t provide the best quality educational environment for the students. Gerzen said finding substitutes last minute – if, for instance, a teacher calls in sick right before school – can also be a challenge.

According to a district survey, the main reason teachers miss school days is due to illness.

"No teacher, when they are gone, just wants a 'warm body' to fill in for them," Schuster said. "They don't want to not have a day of learning. In fact, some teachers will stay to work because of fear that their lesson plans won't be followed."

Schuster worked as a substitute before becoming a full-time teacher seven years ago. Being a substitute is not an easy job, she said.

"Going into different classrooms, trying to know who the students are, and then following a lesson plan takes a lot of practice and patience," she said. "We've been told that Kelly will help to look for the experienced substitutes, often former teachers or educators, so that our students can still learn, even if the regular classroom teacher is gone."

The case for Kelly

Springfield Public Schools, which contracts its substitute services to Kelly Educational Staffing, fills substitute requests more than 99 percent of the time each of the past four years.

In the 2011-12 school year, Springfield couldn’t find substitutes to fill 17 jobs all year. At the Oct. 8 meeting, Clippard said the district couldn’t find substitutes to fill 25 jobs on that day alone.

Schuster said teachers she has talked to have been receptive to contracting with Kelly Services and they hope it solves the problem. The school administrators interviewed for this story also hope outsourcing will help with filling those jobs.

Susan McClintic, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, expressed concern about the outsourcing at the Oct. 8 meeting. She wondered who would represent those substitutes. On Thursday, Columbia teachers voted to have the teachers union exclusively represent them in all forthcoming collective bargaining negotiations with the district.

Under the current system, the district handles substitute requests and last year filled them 94percent of the time. If the district maintained this system, its required budget for substitutes would not increase, according to the documents Clippard presented.

Another option to address the low fill rate was to hire 30 permanent substitute teachers. In that scenario, if the district maintained the 94 percent rate, the budget would increase by about $350,000. If the district managed a 99 percent rate, the budget would increase by about $440,000.

At a 99 percent fill rate with Kelly, the rate that the Springfield district has achieved using Kelly Services, Columbia’s required substitute budget will increase by about $330,000.

Also, by contracting with Kelly Services, the district will not have to pay unemployment benefits. For example, Schuster said, substitutes could work one day in the district and file for unemployment benefits, even if they declined or didn't show up for available jobs. This could have placed a financial burden on the district, she said.

The plan is to hire the same substitute teachers, although they will first have to go through the hiring process with Kelly. Board member Jan Mees wondered at the Oct. 8 meeting whether, with the same pool of people, the same problem will occur.

The Kelly representative, Jennifer Carosielli, said, in essence, that the company's weekly pay system and thorough interviewing process improve the pool of substitutes. 

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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