Classes start soon. But will North Country schools have enough staff?

Amy FeiereiselClasses start soon. But will North Country schools have enough staff?

Weeks before the new school year is not when you want to try to hire new teachers.

In August, Superintendent Todd LePage says most school districts have already “gobbled up most of their applicants.” That’s because they usually “all have a run in May to try to hire the students coming out of college at that time.”

LePage is the superintendent of Brushton-Moira Central School, a district just west of Malone with about 800 students.

He finished the school year with a full squad. But over the summer, he lost several teachers to greener pastures, also known as other districts. We were able to find a similar position in a neighborhood with a shorter route. Another was able to find a job that was more relevant to his niche.

LePage understands why they took these jobs, but it left him trying to fill their positions. And he is not alone.

Indian River Central School District Middle School staff. Photo courtesy of Troy Decker.

Not enough teachers, a lot of movement and job search

Here’s what’s happening: A wave of COVID-inspired retirements and people leaving the teaching profession has left the education world as a whole short of teachers and staff.

LePage says when he started as superintendent ten years ago, “if we had an elementary position, we got 45 to 50 applicants. This spring, we opened an elementary position, we had 15 applicants, and we were really excited, as it was a really plentiful pool.”

For positions in special education, foreign language, or English as a second language, LePage says they’re excited to see all the applications. And that means that, for the first time in a long time, teachers have choices and influence.

“Now people are basically looking for a job. And teachers have that opportunity to do that because of the openings. And there aren’t that many of the students coming out of these teacher preparation programs.”

At least in the North Country, job hunting is less about salary and more about finding a job with a shorter commute, or closer to your certification and interests. Public school districts have a little wiggle room when it comes to salaries, but they’re pretty tied down by their public funding and their local constituents.

But the bottom line is that there are not enough teachers for everyone. At the regional, state and national level, school districts are experiencing labor shortages.

    Indian River Central School District.  Photo courtesy of Troy Decker.

Indian River Central School District. Photo courtesy of Troy Decker.

Troy Decker is the superintendent of Indian River, a relatively large district in Jefferson County with approximately 3,800 students. They are still looking for a middle school science teacher, a middle school math teacher, a music teacher, and maternity leave replacements.

“Because there are more vacancies, there are more opportunities,” Decker said. “Because there are more opportunities which are more vacancies, because there were vacancies, you get the idea.”

Here in the north of the country, the districts have long relied on recruiting staff from outside the region. “People were, at one point, coming to the North Country because the job market was tough,” LePage said. This pool has almost completely dried up. LePage had a musical opening last year and he said “we had a candidate we had a whole year, we interviewed this person, they lived in an area of ​​Syracuse and they accepted a position in Syracuse” .

Ask retirees to come back and sell the neighborhood

Unfortunately, when schools can’t fill positions, the first thing to go is always electives, LePage says.

“A lot of these classes are great for kids, because it’s not the traditional basic academic classes, you know, they go to these classes, and they have fun and get these social emotional experiences, and these other things that you really don’t want to cut.”

So what’s a neighborhood to do? In many places they are asking former teachers to come out of retirement. This is how LePage and Decker filled many of their vacancies.

Decker told me that right after our interview, he was going to make cold calls to potential candidates. “We have wonderful educators joining our Indian River team. But we find that we have to recruit a little harder, we have to look a little deeper, we have to go a little deeper, to get some of these candidates to run.”

Decker says that to attract new employees, they raised starting and mid-career salaries and really tried to sell the school district as a good place to work.

No end in sight and building internal pipelines

Decker and LePage both say hiring struggles have been the top talking point among New York superintendents this summer.

Decker said he doesn’t expect things to improve anytime soon. “By all indications, we’re going to have even greater challenges in 12 months in this area, and in 24 months, maybe even longer.”

If Decker is right and the hiring landscape will only get worse in the years to come, that raises a number of questions: How do you attract new people into the profession? Could serious pay rises be coming? Will the state facilitate obtaining certification?

No one has those answers, and that’s why Decker is hyper-focused on developing an internal pipeline for future staff.

“We work with our high school students to make sure they are clear about the opportunities you can have in the world of education as a career. We work carefully and closely with our university partners to ensure that they know we value these partnerships.

Of course, all the other districts are trying to do the same.