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Southfield schools continue to address staffing issues

Governor signs bill to address substitute teacher shortage

By: Andy Kozlowski | Southfield Sun | Published January 13, 2022


SOUTHFIELD — Local superintendents say that their school districts continue to be short-staffed in a number of areas — and help is needed.

“The entities with which the Southfield Public Schools contract to provide services — (such as) transportation, food service, custodial and security — are within themselves having difficulty filling positions, thereby impeding the daily contracted deliverable services to the school district,” Jennifer Green, the superintendent of the Southfield Public Schools, said in the email.

This shortage extends to substitute teachers.

“Labor shortages, coupled with the increased demand from required quarantines, creates daily competition for school districts, relative to the limited number of substitute teachers available through external contract providers,” Green said.

Neighboring districts, such as the Lamphere Public Schools serving part of Madison Heights, made similar observations.

“All areas of the school district are impacted, but special education, math and science teachers are the biggest need across the county and state,” said Dale Steen, superintendent of the Lamphere Public Schools, in an email. “We feel that we offer a strong workplace culture that is welcoming, supportive and collaborative, which all support a desired place to work and stay employed.”

Amy Kruppe is the superintendent of the Hazel Park Public Schools, which in addition to its namesake serves part of Ferndale.

“We have the same concern with the staffing shortage that other districts have,” Kruppe said in an email. “We are in need of bus drivers, maintenance and custodial, secretaries, psychologists and social workers. We worked with our union to raise our salaries as much as possible while keeping the fiscal management of our school district at the forefront.”

Angel Abdulahad, superintendent of Madison District Public Schools, said his district is also looking for help in various areas.

“We have had difficulties not only securing teaching and instructional staff, but also custodial, paraprofessionals and other school personnel,” Abdulahad said via email. “We are short on foreign language teachers, ESL teachers — also called special certified language teachers — drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and lunch or noon aides. It seems no one wants jobs in the education field right now, partially due to the risks COVID creates.”

Recently, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed House Bill 4294 to help with a statewide substitute teacher shortage. The legislation allows trusted other staff members in the district, such as secretaries and paraprofessionals, to work as substitutes until the end of the current school year, without the need for special certification.

“Making sure every child in Michigan has access to a high-quality public education is my top priority, which is why this year we made the largest investment in K-12 public schools in Michigan history without raising taxes,” Whitmer said in a statement. “The pandemic has been challenging for our children, teachers and parents, and our educators have gone above and beyond to ensure Michigan’s children have a bright future. Allowing schools to employ school staff that students know as substitute teachers will help keep school doors open and students learning in the classroom the rest of the school year.”

Paul Liabenow, the executive director of the Michigan Elementary & Middle School Principals Association, said in a statement that Michigan already faced a “severe” educator shortage prior to COVID-19.

“The pandemic has only exacerbated that shortage by further hindering school districts’ abilities to fill vacant positions and keep buildings open, placing undue stress on educators already working tirelessly every day to ensure all students in Michigan receive quality, in-person instruction,” he said. “House Bill 4294 will provide districts with additional flexibility to fill substitute teaching vacancies so students can continue to learn in a safe, supportive environment.  On behalf of educational leaders throughout Michigan, we want to thank Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Brad Paquette for their continued advocacy on behalf of educators and students throughout Michigan.” 

Green said that shuffling around existing staff to serve as substitute teachers is easier said than done.

“At a minimum, each and every person placed before students should have orientation (training) on the mechanics of youth development, instructional delivery, classroom management and safety protocols,” Green said. “Furthermore, most individuals within a school district are members of professional associations covered by legally binding collective bargaining agreements, which cannot be summarily dismissed.”

Abdulahad said he thinks “the legislation, in theory, is good,” but that the Madison District Public Schools currently don’t have enough available staff who could fill in as substitutes.

At press time, Kruppe said the Hazel Park Public Schools was still considering this new option.

“I have not confirmed with our union leadership nor my peers on the legislation and what we might do in Hazel Park,” Kruppe said. “I can say that I appreciate that the Legislature is trying to come up with a solution for schools. I believe we have to think about professional development, as needed, for individuals  that may do this, so we can make sure that they can support the students appropriately. Teaching is a craft, and our staff spend years developing the skills needed to teach our students. We need to remember that our goal is to move forward education in the classroom.”

Steen said that the substitute shortage has been an ongoing challenge in his district.

“Substitute teachers have been hard to find for the past few years, and this year with COVID stressing all job markets, it has been even more difficult,” Steen said. “(House Bill 4294) is not a long-term solution. We need to find ways to attract more students into the teaching profession.”

The governor said she hopes to find a more permanent fix.

“I am committed to working with the legislature to develop high-quality solutions to address these staff shortages long-term, so that we can ensure that every child is able to access a quality education,” Whitmer stated.

Kruppe said that “of course staffing is a major issue,” but “we need to look at a long-term plan that encourages our amazing youth to enter the field of teachers” — something she feels the state could help with more scholarships for students to attend college and training programs, and more student loan forgiveness for students who become teachers.

“Our public servants need to find creative ways to encourage (future teachers) to take a lower-paying job and stay for the long term so that we can continue to recruit and maintain amazing individuals for our students,” Kruppe said.

Steen echoed this, saying he hopes the state will “incentivize students to go into K-12 education and be a partner in lifting up the teaching profession in a positive way.” He also encourages lawmakers to continue using the School Finance Adequacy Study to find ways to better fund K-12 education so that districts can offer more competitive wages.

Abdulahad said that the state could do more to bring back former teachers into the workforce.

“I would like the Legislature to completely allow all retired teaching staff and instructional staff to be able to return to the labor force without restrictions or loss of their pensions,” Abdulahad said. “Right now there is a cap on how much a retired teacher can make unless they are identified in the critical shortage area. I would like legislation to expand the critical shortage area to all school district positions.”

Green said that she hopes the state will be more flexible with testing schedules and other standards given the ongoing pandemic.

“Relative to the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on public education in Michigan, traditional school district timelines, calendars and mandates have been disrupted to the point of fragmentation,” Green said. “Therefore, it would be most beneficial to the effective and efficient education of our children if standardized assessments and the Read by Grade Three legislation could be suspended for the 2021-2022 academic school year,” Green said. “Furthermore, given the teacher and administrator evaluations are heavily dependent on the students’ standardized assessments, they too should be suspended for this academic year.

“Lastly, flexibility and recalibration are needed with pupil accounting rules relative to the average daily attendance rates and the number of force majeure days that are afforded to each school district,” she added, with “force majeure days” referring to a form of paid leave.