Pierce County school officials are reporting a shortage of substitute teachers — a trend that appears to be happening statewide.
They speculate that a mix of economic, labor market and other forces are behind the shortage.
Tacoma Public Schools, the largest school district in the South Sound, measures what it calls its “fill rate.” The goal is to fill all substitute openings, short-term and long-term, every day of the school year.
“The absolute goal is 100 percent,” said Lynne Rosellini, assistant superintendent for human resources.
But she’s watched the rate drop from about 90 percent two years ago to a current rate of about 75 percent at the elementary and middle school level and 84 percent in Tacoma high schools.
To plug the substitute gap in some school districts, several teachers might be asked to give up planning periods or take extra students into their classrooms.
On some days, specialists — music teachers or P.E. teachers, for example — might be reassigned to cover for absent classroom teachers. Even school administrators can be pressed into duty.
To counter the trend, school officials say they are recruiting like crazy — at job fairs, through Facebook and word-of-mouth, at local universities and on their own district websites.
Local teachers union presidents say their members are feeling the crunch, as teachers are asked to cover for absent colleagues. Pam Kruse, president of the union in the Franklin Pierce School District, said that at a recent Washington Education Association conference, nearly all the local presidents raised their hands when asked whether their districts were dealing with a substitute shortage.
“We are getting e-mail from human resources telling us to be prepared to cover,” Kruse said. “It’s the new normal.”
“Certainly some days are worse than others,” said Shaun Carey, human resources director in the Parkland-based district. “There are many days that, after an effort is made, we are successful in finding substitutes for all teacher absences. However, there are also days when positions remain unfilled, even after our best effort.”
The nature of teaching explains some absences. Teachers are routinely exposed to germs that spread easily among both students and staff.
While some studies have shown that teacher absences spike on Mondays and Fridays, officials in Tacoma who have studied it say the difference between days of the week isn’t extreme.
Rosellini said she looked at the data and found about 25 percent of absences occurred on Fridays and 22 percent on Mondays. If they were spread evenly, each day would account for about 20 percent of absences.
She said a review of teacher absences around school holidays also failed to reveal a pattern.
Both district and union officials identify one sure factor that’s boosting the absence rate: Teachers are being pulled away from classrooms to attend training on new state-mandated systems — including Common Core standards and new teacher evaluations, as well as new district initiatives.
Some districts are trying to get around that problem by offering training after school and on weekends.
“We’ve never been hit so hard with these initiatives,” said Tacoma Education Association President Adrienne Dale.
School district officials say there are complicated issues on the supply side that play into the teacher-absence equation.
For decades, Washington state teachers were able to retire after 30 years. Many of them — still in their early-to-mid-50s — would return after retirement as substitutes.
Dean Shepard, 64, is one of the returnees. He retired from the Tacoma School District in 2005 at age 55 after teaching for 30 years, mostly in special education.
Shepard said increasing paperwork, stress and poor health drove him to retire early. But he couldn’t stay away for long. He likes being a substitute, which lets him focus more on students and less on paperwork.
This year, he’s assigned as a long-term substitute in a special-education classroom at Larchmont Elementary School in Tacoma, where he has worked since February.
“I’m just a steward for the regular teacher’s classroom,” he said. “Your job is to maintain that classroom.”
But changes in the retirement system that began in 1977 have shrunk the pool of returnees like Shepard. The last of the teachers able to retire under the old system are now in their late 50s. Many teachers who started their careers after 1977 must work until they’re in their 60s.
Those older retirees may be less interested in returning to the classroom on a regular basis, Rosellini said. Or they may want to work only at certain schools or on certain days of the week. Some are snowbirds who leave the area for the winter.
More recent retirees also have limits on how soon they can return to the classroom and still keep their pensions, as well as on how many hours they can work before their pensions are affected.
National experts are predicting a nationwide teacher shortage, as the Baby Boom generation of teachers retires. That means school districts are hiring more new college graduates — teachers who in the past might have subbed for a few years before landing a permanent job.
“We use the substitute pool as a hiring pool,” Rosellini said. “When we see great substitutes, we hire them as regular staff.”
In Lakewood’s Clover Park School District, more than 21 percent of new hires this year came from the substitute pool.
Another drain on the substitute pool is the improving economy. People are finding better-paying and more stable jobs outside of substitute teaching.
“The decline in the number of substitute teachers is partly due to the competitive job market where there are alternative employment opportunities,” said Lori McStay, human resources director in Clover Park.
Pay varies from district to district, but a check of several local districts puts basic substitute teacher pay in the range of $132 to $135 a day. Paychecks increase somewhat for teachers who fill in for a month or more.
In Tacoma, substitutes who are retirees from the district are placed on the regular salary schedule after 16 days of consecutive substitute work and paid a daily rate based on that schedule.
Union officials say substitute pay is one of the issues being discussed as new teacher contracts are negotiated this year in districts including Tacoma and Franklin Pierce.
Tacoma currently has about 460 teachers on its roster of substitutes; 277 of them were added since the beginning of this school year. The Spanaway-based Bethel School District, about two-thirds the size of Tacoma, has 226 active substitutes.
But those substitutes are not exclusive to either district. Many work in multiple districts, and districts are frequently trying to hire the same people on any given school day.
“Currently, we have over 150 substitutes in our system,” Clover Park’s McStay said. “But there are times throughout the year when that simply isn’t enough. We see this when flu season hits or when a large number of teachers are out for professional development sessions.”
There are several categories of substitute teachers in Washington state. Many are fully certificated teachers. But others are what are known as emergency substitutes. They must hold a bachelor’s degree, but not necessarily in education. Districts are permitted to hire emergency substitutes if they can’t find enough subs with teaching certificates.
Tacoma is currently hiring emergency substitutes. But officials worry that dipping into that pool too often may affect student achievement down the road.
“If we don’t have a prepared teacher in front of kids, there are consequences that we can’t measure directly,” Rosellini said.