Kim Martinez nervously stood before Arlington school board members and implored them to do something about a shortage of substitute teachers that is disrupting classroom instruction.
Martinez, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Webb Elementary School, told trustees recently that the shortage has affected at least 120,802 students this academic year when 5,491 positions went unfilled between Aug. 26 and March 7, according to district records.
“… At my school, if we don’t prearrange a sub, we can almost count on not being able to get one,” said Martinez, who is also the secretary of the United Educators Association, which has asked the district for two years to look into what it considers a broken system for providing substitutes.
She said a lack of substitutes leaves classes divided and teachers overwhelmed and underprepared.
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“On the elementary level what happens when there is no sub to cover? Children get shuffled into other classes — usually divided between other teachers on that grade level, which in turn disrupts their instructional routine as well,” Martinez wrote in a letter to trustees.
Pay is one problem, but the district simply hasn’t worked hard enough to recruit qualified personnel, Martinez said.
“It’s not just that [the pay]. They didn’t aggressively recruit,” she said.
The lack of substitutes has been a “significant source of concern,” said Scott Kahl, assistant superintendent of human resources, who was hired in December.
The district has an average fill rate of 87 percent, compared with 91.5 percent in Fort Worth, 92.8 percent in Mansfield and 94 percent in Hurst-Euless-Bedford.
Based on the feedback, Kahl is working to pilot solutions in the next few weeks that include pay based on demand, days of the week and specific campuses. He said the district is competitive in the market but hasn’t made a substantive effort to bring applicants in.
“It just has not had the focus or emphasis,” Kahl said. “We are going to make sure the labor pool are aware of the opportunities.”
The district conducted a comprehensive study of the substitute system at the end of the 2012-13 school year, and Kahl looked to it for ideas on improving the system. One plan is to fully shift over from using an outdated automated calling system to an online system that allows subs to pick their shifts.
A bigger pool
Martinez said some substitutes have complained of receiving automated calls for jobs hours after the start time.
With testing season around the corner, Martinez fears that the lack of subs will hit the classroom hard, especially in the elementary stage. Individual assessments with children begin in April, and Martinez said teachers have no time to take over other classes.
When classes are divided, teachers are left without enough desks, chairs and materials. And during time that should be spent helping kids prepare, they are left busy caring for other classes.
“Do these scenarios support the strategic plan?” Martinez asked trustees.
The 64,323-student district had 4,915 unfilled positions from August through February. By comparison, the Fort Worth school district had 4,819 unfilled positions during the same period, according to district officials. But the Fort Worth district has 19,000 more students.
The 32,831-student Mansfield district had 1,942 unfilled positions from August through February, according to officials.
Grapevine-Colleyville has had an 84.3 percent fill rate, with 1,347 unfilled spots in its 13,366-student district.
“We would like to grow our pool of substitutes,” spokeswoman Megan Overman said. “We want to have a 100 percent fill rate, and until that happens, we will continue seeking and hiring qualified and capable educators to serve as substitutes when needed.”
The 21,940-student H-E-B district has experienced only 455 unfilled positions through March 21, said Janice Overbey, substitute-program secretary.
When positions need to be filled, part of Overbey’s job is to come in at 6:15 a.m. every morning and start making calls.
“We all feel the pain,” Overbey said. “No district has subs that work specifically for that district.”
Teachers in love
Districts like Grapevine-Colleyville already offer incentives for substitutes by paying them an extra $10 on Mondays and Fridays when teacher absences are high and subs want to bank on “three-day weekends,” Overman said.
A closer look at Arlington’s numbers revealed that out of the 26 working weeks accounted for through March 7, the most teacher and sub absences occurred on Fridays — 18 weeks out of 26.
Furthermore, it appears 763 teachers and subs were whistling a well-known British love song on Friday, Feb. 14. Valentine’s Day had the highest number of unfilled sub positions, with 158.
“Part of the problem is the teachers,” Overbey said. “I know there are certainly valid absences, but there’s a pattern, a person pattern or a Friday/Monday pattern.”
Kahl said that he is aware of the approaches taken by other districts and that Arlington will look at a number of target areas, like graduate students, community college partnerships, and the local population and labor pool.
“I think a lot of things we are talking about right now are things we can do very rapidly,” he said.
Though trustees already raised substitute pay by $2 a day for the current school year to $77 for those with degrees and $72 for those without, the United Educators Association would like to see more money.