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Substitute teachers shortage hits area schools

Substitute teacher Matt Lanka keeps an eye on Rogers High School students Achut Mishra, left, R.G. Rincon and Patrick Watkins, as they work on a math assignment Thursday at the school. Rincon and Watkins are listening to Lil Wayne on the headphones. (Dan Pelle)
Substitute teacher Matt Lanka keeps an eye on Rogers High School students Achut Mishra, left, R.G. Rincon and Patrick Watkins, as they work on a math assignment Thursday at the school. Rincon and Watkins are listening to Lil Wayne on the headphones. (Dan Pelle)

Spokane schools are in a bind over a short-term shortage of substitute teachers.

A hiring binge in the wake of recent court ruling that required more state spending on basic education, such as full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes, raided the pool of temporary help.

Furthermore, state-mandated programs coming next fall are already pulling teachers out of the classroom and into training sessions. And October is when illnesses start swirling around the schools.

On Oct. 7, Spokane Public Schools needed 270 substitute teachers and came up short. Mead School District had 250 absences on a recent Friday and could find only 175 substitutes. Central Valley School District has struggled a couple of times, too.

“We just have to be creative on those days,” said Melanie Rose, Central Valley spokeswoman.

Sometimes teachers are pulled back from training or administrators and counselors step into classrooms. Those who are scheduled to be out are asked to give as much notice as possible. On some occasions, teachers just go to work sick.

Districts are recruiting substitutes, and there’s no indication the shortage will be a long-term problem.

“We get 200 to 300 applicants for every teaching position,” Rose said.

Spokane Public Schools is working with local colleges to find qualified graduates. “Someone might have a part-time job and want to sub a few days,” said Erica Hallock, district spokeswoman.

Spokane Public Schools hired 326 teachers, the most in almost a decade, district officials said. Central Valley School District brought on 80 new teachers.

Many were hired because those applicants had already worked in the districts as substitutes.

Spokane used to have 550 to 600 substitutes on call and now it’s down to about 440, so “it’s tighter,” Hallock said. The district has more than 1,700 full-time teachers.

Rebuilding a file of stand-by teachers also takes time, district officials said. Teachers must be certified and meet a checklist of qualifications.

“This isn’t a babysitting job, it’s about continuing to learn,” Hallock said. The district has already hired 42 more certified substitutes, and more are in the pipeline.

East Valley School District’s substitute list has shrunk by half, said Superintendent John Glenewinkel.

“So the district is doing everything it can to attract high-quality subs and build a larger pool,” he said. “Washington has pretty high standards, though, so if you have the qualifications to be a sub, you can probably find another job.”

While substitute teaching in Washington requires certification, it takes nothing more than a high school diploma in more than two dozen states, including Idaho.

The region’s smaller districts have an additional challenge: Spokane Public Schools pays subs more than the surrounding districts. For example, Mead pays $100 per day, East Valley pays $98 and Spokane’s rate is more than $116.

Ralph Thayer, Mead’s assistant superintendent, said they pondered increasing the district’s rate but decided it was too expensive.

Despite the current drama due to the shortages, district officials think the substitute issue will pass unless all the retirees waiting in the wings jump ship.

“It’s just a matter of building up that substitute pool. But it’s quite a process to approve someone as a substitute,” Rose said.



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