PORTLAND — The School Department struggles every day to find enough substitutes to cover teacher absences.
Often it can’t.
In an attempt to address the shortage, the School Board is considering raising substitute teaching pay rates for the first time since 2012.
The current proposal is to raise the daily rate for substitutes with a four-year degree from $85 to $95, while also increasing the daily rate for those with a two-year degree.
This could add another $36,000 to the school budget annually, but School Board members said Dec. 4 that the increase is necessary.
“Some students really need every single day of education we can provide,” District 3 representative Laurie Davis said. “That means having someone (in the classroom) who can actually move (the curriculum) forward.”
She’s also worried that any unfilled substitute request means “that something is not going to happen for our students that day. I think $36,000 is a drop in the bucket when we’re looking at educational achievement.”
“I know this is an extra expense, but it’s a growing problem that probably impacts on our students more than (in other school districts), just because of our demographics,” Davis said.
However, she and others on the School Board also said they’re not sure the increase in pay alone is going to motivate someone who is not already substituting for the district on a regular basis.
Barbara Stoddard, the School Department’s human resources director, agreed, saying the pay increase is only part of the district’s strategy to recruit and retain more substitutes.
“I know the pay increase won’t solve the problem, but it’s only one aspect of many,” she said. “At least it will keep us competitive with other (neighboring districts).”
Stoddard said the schools are trying to be creative, including reaching out to college students who may have enough credits to be eligible to substitute.
“The problem,” she said, “is that not very many people want to do this job anyway,” and with the unemployment rate in Portland at 2.4 percent there’s a significant labor shortage for everyone.
Stoddard said substitute teachers generally work a 6.5-hour day and, with a $70 rate for someone with a two-year college degree, the district wouldn’t even be paying Maine’s new minimum wage of $11 an hour, which kicks in Jan. 1.
She said Portland was previously at or above the market rate for substitute teacher pay, but now it’s falling behind the pack.
Stoddard told the School Board that Scarborough currently pays $75 a day for substitutes with a two-year degree and $85 for someone with a four-year degree. South Portland pays $85 and $90, respectively. Falmouth pays $89 across the board and Cape Elizabeth pays $90 a day no matter the education level.
She said the majority of Portland’s substitute teachers have at least a four-year degree. The district has a database of about 300 substitutes, but only about half are active, Stoddard said.
And, since the district employs about 700 teachers and 200 educational technicians, there’s often difficulty in covering absences, whether planned or unplanned, she said.
For the first two months of school, Stoddard said on average there were 11 unfilled vacancies across the district on any given day. “Our fill rates really show there’s a struggle to get substitutes on a daily basis.”
“On a daily basis we’re pulling ed techs to cover classes or taking other stop-gap measures; that can be stressful for both students and staff. We’re employing all kinds of different strategies in each building to make it work.”
She said another issue that complicates covering teacher absences is that substitutes can often only work specific days, only want to work in specific schools, or even in specific classrooms.
Using October as an example, Stoddard said there were a total of 1,659 teacher absences for the month across the district’s 17 schools. Of those absences only 958 were filled, which means there were classroom vacancies 22 percent of the time.
The student representatives to the School Board said last week that the lack of substitutes is hard. “We need to have school even if the (regular) teacher is not there,” one of them said.
School Board members had a lot of questions about how the substitute process works, with new member Abusana Bondo asking if any training or orientation is offered.
Stoddard said a monthly meeting is held for new substitutes when the district goes over the substitute handbook, but there’s no formal training.
However, she said, “that’s something we have discussed. It would be helpful and we also want to set people up for success” as much as possible.
Board member Timothy Atkinson also wondered if there was a way teachers and substitutes could communicate better to help facilitate learning. “I want the substitute’s time in the classroom to be beneficial” to students, he said.
Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana agreed that would be ideal, but said, unfortunately “it’s not so much about advancing (the curriculum), but handing stuff out, getting through the day and monitoring the classroom.”