Schools face shortage of substitute teachers

BAR HARBOR — Five elementary schools in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System are currently advertising for long-term substitute teachers. Officials in each school say finding people to cover classrooms for a day or longer can be a struggle throughout the school year.

According to Pemetic Elementary School Principal Rhonda Fortin, substitute availability can be somewhat of a seasonal issue. She sees a healthy number of people sign up at the start of the school year with limited availability until they finish a seasonal job. Once that seasonal position wraps up in the late fall, the person may have increased availability until he or she decides to migrate to warmer places or a job with permanent income, leaving resources low again for the school.

Trenton Elementary School Principal Mike Zboray confirmed that same trend happens at his school. “Over the last couple of years I’ve had to put it in our school newsletter for people to sign up,” he said.

A public request for substitutes was even put on the school’s sign located next to Route 3 at one point to draw in possible candidates, Zboray added.

“It’s harder and harder to find good people,” said Marc Gousse, superintendent for the district. “I started my career in education as a substitute, both short-term and long-term… Substituting is a great way to test-drive a career path.”

A short-term substitute in the MDI school district makes $80 per day and doesn’t need to have teaching qualifications to apply. To cover a teacher’s classroom for the day is a seven-hour commitment, with a half hour for lunch. That works out to $11.43/hour for a day’s work, just above the state’s hourly minimum wage.

A long-term substitute position is usually a commitment of 10 days or more in a specific classroom or role.

Depending on the experience the substitute has, the pay can be higher. According to the district’s business manager Nancy Thurlow, a long-term sub is paid the $80 per day for the first 10 school days, unless the person are already working within the district and making more. A long-term sub might be an ed tech, for example, who is paid $18 per hour. In that case, his or her same pay would apply for the first 10 days of a long-term substituting stint.

For the second 10 days of a long-term commitment, a person with a bachelors degree can earn $209 per day, according to Thurlow. A person with a masters degree and several years of teaching experience, typically a retired teacher, can begin earning $222 per day after the first 10 days of the commitment.

Every person who chooses to substitute teach in any school district throughout the state gets fingerprinted, which is kept as a state record, and undergoes a background check.

“It’s a struggle,” said Jandrea True, principal of Tremont Consolidated School. “It’s definitely a struggle to find long-term and qualified substitutes.”

Both True and Zboray began teaching in the district more than a decade ago. Each explained that, when they began at Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor, an open teaching position would attract a healthy number of candidates, typically up to 20. These days, those same positions often attract fewer than 10 applicants, according to Zboray.

True, Fortin, Zboray and other principals within the district occasionally have to fill in the teaching gaps at their school if there is no one from the community to cover.

“If we don’t have a sub then we run through our staff,” said Zboray. “I believe all principals have a tiered system that we go through.”

While Zboray may have to cover a classroom or a special education station a couple of times a month, initially he will re-assign other specialists and ed techs within the school to a classroom, when necessary.

“I know for a fact principals and staff, when there’s a shortage, do what they have to do to take care of the students,” said Gousse.

Budgets for Tremont Consolidated, Trenton Elementary and Pemetic Elementary schools all show an increase in the line for substitutes over the last couple of years. From fiscal year 2018 to that of 2019, Pemetic increased its budget for substitute teaching by $6,700, from $30,800 to $37,500. At this point in the school year, Fortin anticipates the school will actually spend $35,000 for substitutes, but is sticking with $37,500 for fiscal year 2020.

At the Tremont school, True anticipates spending for substitutes through this fiscal year to be at least $6,000 more than was budgeted. Much of that expense was due to long-term substitutes hired to cover multiple unforeseen medical issues among her staff, True explained. Because of the increase in the school’s budget for fiscal year 2020, True is proposing $30,000, instead of the $24,000 in the FY19 budget.

Some medical leaves are planned for, such as an upcoming long-term position at Trenton Elementary School because of a staff pregnancy. But an older teaching population can bring different challenges, Zboray said.

“I’ve had a couple of long-term bereavement situations,” he said about staff caring for family members with medical needs and appointments. “Our teachers in general are in that higher age [group].”

Zboray said he is grateful for one retiree in the Trenton community who previously taught school in New York before moving to the area. She has been his go-to substitute.

“I think most schools have one or two people they have for that,” said Zboray. “But, more so, it’s the barrage of in and out.”

Although the issue is district-wide, Gousse says the MDI community has a workable number of people willing to give their time and expertise, when available. The flexibility of a substitute schedule can also be appealing, he said. One need only agree to cover a classroom when they are available to do so.

“We’re really lucky to have some really good people who care about our schools and care about our kids,” said Gousse. “We have a lot of unique situations with people. Some of them might be artists (or) retired teachers.”

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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