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Who’ll teach our children?

Districts struggling to keep good subs when the pay is so poor

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An impending teacher shortage is expected to put a drain on Utah's shallow pool of substitute teachers, and school districts are struggling to keep up with the competition.

The trick is keeping substitutes coming back when they might make $45 a day, without benefits, and have to deal with the antics many recall from their own school days.

"It's hard to keep them when you've got McDonald's that's more competitive" pay-wise, said Lynda Hart, associate director of human resources for Granite School District. "We tell substitutes it's important to be the best they can be. (This is) a child's education. But the pay doesn't reflect that."

A panel of superintendents are to discuss substitute teacher cost concerns when a legislative school funding task force meets Tuesday. Other topics include money for textbooks, buildings and fee waivers.

Ninety-six percent of the country's school districts have trouble finding and retaining substitutes, and "Utah is no different," said Geoffrey Smith, executive director of Utah State University's Substitute Teacher Institute, which operates with grants and donations.

Quality substitutes are crucial. Students can expect to have a substitute teacher for one year's worth of classes by the time they graduate from high school, the institute has reported. The number is based on teachers being out of the classroom 8 percent of the time — half for illness or personal reasons and half for professional development (it's cheaper to pay subs when teachers go to workshops than fund an extra day's pay for certified teachers).

Yet the substitute pool is about to shrink. Districts nationwide face losing a slew of their teaching force to retirement and with that could come more competition for substitutes.

Salt Lake City School District, for instance, employs as subs certified teachers who don't get hired as full-time teach—

ers, said Dolores Riley, assistant superintendent of human resources.

But those teachers are likely to be placed as permanent substitutes when the shortage hits, and that essentially takes them off the market, Smith said.

Large school districts report placing as many as 300 substitutes a day. But sometimes, districts are unable to replace absent teachers, leaving principals and colleagues to fill in where they can, said Mel Miles, Davis District's personnel director.

"My surprise, frankly, is that we are able to do as well as we're doing," he said.

Consider the pay. A Davis substitute with a high school diploma will receive $47 a day next year; licensed teachers substituting in the same class more than 20 consecutive days will earn $77 a day.

Jordan District's pay scale last school year ranged from $52 for high school graduates (used in emergencies only) to $83 for off-track, year-round teachers. Those teaching the same class more than 10 consecutive days receive an extra $8.

Murray schools pay subs between $47 and $69.50 a day, depending on education and experience.

Wage differences are significant because subs can teach wherever they want, and districts often compete for the same ones.

Audrey Walker was a substitute for Salt Lake elementary schools for more than five years after moving from Maine, where she was a licensed schoolteacher. She recently quit to work full time at "Project Wild," which offers conservation workshops for teachers.

"I love kids, and it was really exciting for me to be able to go to (the same) classroom" more than once, Walker said.

But she sometimes felt like a transitional worker rather than a valuable asset. "I think if they offered benefits and had people go back to the same school so they could get to know the kids and teachers, (substitutes) would be more long term," Walker said. She also suggests increasing pay for substitutes in inner-city schools, which are more trying than schools in affluent areas.

But that costs money. Last school year, Davis spent some $1.67 million on substitutes. Salt Lake City School District spent around $850,000 — proportionate to Davis considering enrollments.

Districts are making strides to boost sub loyalty. Murray is looking at increasing pay for the number of years of substituting experience and hiring permanent substitutes as an incentive to stay within the district, said Martha Kupferschmidt, Murray director of personnel and student services.

Granite is working on giving subs the same pay raises as teachers and offering retired and off-track year-round teachers $100 a day, Hart said.

Districts including Salt Lake City, Jordan, Granite, Alpine and Davis use Subfinder, a 24-hour automated system activated by a telephone keypad, to place substitute teachers. The system is considered substitute-friendly, because subs can punch in what days or where they want to work, Miles said.

USU's substitute institute provides handbooks to 2,500 school districts nationwide. Last week, it released a "substitute success kit," which includes a handbook, training CD and a first-ever substitute assessment, taken over the Internet like a distance-education course, to measure skills and give feedback to school districts. There's already an order backlog, Smith said.

Local school districts also offer substitute teachers courses on discipline, classroom management and basic legal principles. Courses usually are optional, but Murray offers a $50 stipend as incentive.

Substitute training outside basic orientation is offered in about 10 percent of school districts nationwide. But Smith says it is key to classroom comfort and plays even a greater role in sub loyalty than pay.

"We think it's a worthwhile investment," Kupferschmidt said. "We want to have our substitutes as well prepared as possible so it's not just a wasted day."

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com