Public school districts across Kansas are scrambling to hire employees ahead of the new school year.

“I predict a lot of school districts will start without all their teachers hired,” said Haven USD 312 Superintendent Clark Wedel recently.

“It’s a challenge, probably more than it ever has been in my career,” Wedel said on July 29, when the Haven school board conducted a special meeting and hired a fourth-grade teacher.

Hutchinson USD 308’s McCandless Elementary School will welcome students Aug. 15 with a long-term substitute teaching a kindergarten class.

“There were no applicants this summer. The teacher shortage is that critical,” Rick Kraus, USD 308’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said of the opening.

The district will try to hire a December college graduate.

Unfilled jobs are not limited to the classroom. Districts are seeking school bus drivers, custodians, paraprofessionals, psychologists, librarians — and more.

Tony Blackwell, assistant superintendent in Labette County USD 506, said he could not think of a single school district in his area in southeast Kansas that was not advertising for school bus drivers.

 

Searching

Southwest Kansas’ Rolla USD 217 had not needed to hire a grades 7-12 social studies teacher for 26 years because John Barrett filled that role.

One of the fears the Rolla school board had when it chose Barrett to be the district’s superintendent, starting in July 2019, was that it might not be able to find a replacement for Barrett in the classroom.

Those fears were well-placed.

A job posting on kansasteachingjobs.com sought to attract applicants by pointing out:


Rolla schools operate on a four-day week.
Its schools participate in the state’s redesign program.
District-owned housing would be available and the first six months of rent would be waived.
Based on a negotiated agreement, the base salary would begin at $39,594.

“We got zero response,” Barrett said.

At a brainstorming session with the school board, the suggestion arose to list the job on Indeed.com, another employment website that charges for the listing. That listing drew applicants, including first-year teacher Jon Holmgren, Wichita.

“I’ve always wanted to try to get out of the big city,” said Holmgren. “I love looking up into the night sky and seeing the stars,” he said, and he likes to hike.

Originally, he said, he searched for jobs out of state. When that did not lead to a job, he looked at openings in Kansas and saw a fit with Rolla.

He thought the housing offer probably meant a one- or two-bedroom apartment. “No, it’s an actual house,” Holmgren said.

Teachers with extra duties receive compensation and Holmgren will coach the middle school basketball team. Neither gender has enough players for a separate team, so boys and girls will play on the team, Holmgren said.

The Kansas State University graduate has student loan debt that tops $30,000 and he is expected to qualify for up to $3,000 a year in student loan repayment. Morton County is a Rural Opportunity Zone county participating in that program.

“We’ve had a lot of new teachers to the community utilize it,” said Morton County economic development director Vienna Lee.

The program offers eligible applicants student loan repayment of up to $3,000 annually — half provided locally and the state furnishing the other half — for up to five years, if they stay, Lee said.

 

Behind the wheel

In Labette County, Blackwell made the kind of fliers sometimes found on a bulletin board in a convenience store. Anyone interested in driving a school bus could rip off one of the small strips of paper containing a phone number.

“We picked up two people,” he said, although he thinks they came from employees spreading the word.

The rural school district runs 25 regular bus routes. “I’d love to have a half dozen or more substitute drivers,” Blackwell said recently.

It can take six to eight weeks to get all the licensing, testing and background check work accomplished for a new driver, Blackwell said. And, there’s no guarantee an applicant will pass the testing in the first round, he said.

The district touted on social media an evening event last week for those interested in driving a school bus. It drew no one, Blackwell said.

The part-time job of school bus driver used to attract farmers, "but you have fewer and fewer of those folks,” said Haven USD 312’s director of learning Marty Nienstedt, who will start in mid-August as Seaman USD 345’s director of human resources.

“The family farm is a thing of the past. That pool has definitely dried up,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell said that district passed a ride-along policy, essentially allowing a parent or adult caring for a young child to bring the child along when the adult drives the bus.

School bus driver “is our toughest to fill right now,” said Brian White, executive director of human resources and operations for Auburn-Washburn USD 437. It’s also an area where the need continues throughout the school year, he said.

In early July, Buhler USD 313 was short five bus drivers. Subsequent hires eased the crunch, but that district also wants more substitute divers. Ultimately, the school district could stagger start times for USD 313 schools in a future school year, partly because of the challenge of finding people for a job with a starting pay of $13 an hour.

The search for drivers is tough because of the disjointed work shift but also because “it’s a huge responsibility,” Blackwell said.

“You’re driving a bus down the road at 55 miles per hour with 45 kids behind your back,” said Sue Givens, who retired at the end of June as superintendent of El Dorado USD 490.

 

‘Conundrum’

First-year teachers often are starting jobs that pay between $35,000 and $40,000 or higher a year. Those career jobs attract people to move to a community.

To fill many classified staff positions, however, school districts must rely on the community’s existing labor pool for lesser-paid positions. Haven USD 312 is in the middle of contract negotiations and wages are expected to rise, but a custodian and a para currently start, for example, at approximately $9 an hour.

Sue Givens, now a field services specialist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, described the need of school districts to find people to perform various jobs and residents’ need to find work as a “conundrum.”

Schools have a little bit more stringent requirements, she said, noting that some potential workers may be thwarted because of the district’s drug testing, or because of the work hours. Maybe they don’t have child care, transportation or the wardrobe for the job, she said.

“Those are issues for people struggling with poverty,” Givens said.

The El Dorado school board, Givens said, “put a huge focus on equity,” Under one initiative, the district offered to pay half the cost of a pair of shoes for custodians and maintenance workers. The district provided shirts for all classified employees, too.

The shortage of substitute teachers is another nagging issue.

It’s a problem in Ellsworth USD 327, said school board member Elizabeth Donley. Nickerson-South Hutchinson USD 309’s school board recently voted to boost substitute teacher pay from $95 to $100 a day, and Haven USD 312 raised its rate from $90 to $100. Hutchinson USD 308 pays a daily substitute $104.

 

Leaving

Resignation notices written this year by some Buhler USD 313 employees or their superiors revealed a range of reasons for leaving.

Plum Creek Elementary School Principal John Schulte resigned so his family could relocate from Reno County to the Kansas City area, enabling the kids to be raised near grandparents and extended family.

Some USD 313 employees resigned to take jobs at nearby school districts. The district lost a Title I reading teacher to retirement. A preschool para at Buhler Grade School wanted to spend more time with her two little granddaughters.

Some people who held coaching jobs relinquished them because they wanted to spend more time with their family or because it conflicted with their job.

A dishwasher announced in early March he was resigning that day.

Abby Burkholder resigned her first-grade teaching job at Buhler USD but hoped to “return in a few years after my babies are in school full time.”

 

Homegrown

The outlook for pay raises at school districts is positive, partly because state aid is increasing.

Total school district general funds, special education aid and local option budget dollars combined amounted to about $4.147 billion statewide in 2017, and are estimated to reach $5.178 billion in 2023, according to the data compiled by the Kansas Association of School Boards. It also notes that the funding, when adjusted for estimated inflation, will likely still be lower than inflation-adjusted 2009 funding. 

At Topeka USD 501, director of communications Misty Kruger said the starting pay in 2019-20 for an entry-level teacher is $41,500 — the highest beginning salary offered among school districts in Shawnee County, she said. A teacher can obtain a health insurance plan for as little as $20 a month for the employee, she said.

School districts are receiving additional funding, which allows them to increase salaries, but low unemployment means they face more competition for staff, according to Mark Tallman, associate executive director/advocacy and communications with the Kansas Association of School Boards.

The unemployment rate in June in Kansas was 3.4 percent, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.

"Finding qualified staff continues to be a major concern for almost every school district we talk to," Tallman said.

Topeka USD 501 has increased its recruiting efforts, Kruger said. That includes building partnerships with universities to get students to do their student teaching in USD 501. Also, the district started a program for high school juniors and seniors interested in becoming teachers. By the time they are done with the program, they are eligible to apply to be a para, and can work as a para while pursuing a college degree, Kruger said.

“This year has just been an exceptional year for us in regards to filling vacancies, especially for our teaching positions,” Kruger said.

The Topeka district recruits year-round for some hard-to-fill positions, even if they are currently filled. An example is the job of speech-language/pathologist. That position will be listed throughout the school year.

“We leave them open even if we don’t have a vacancy, because we know we’ll have one,” Kruger said.

Hiring early carries a risk, according to Hutchinson’s Kraus.

There have been times the Hutchinson district has hired somebody in May for an August position only to have that person find a better job over the summer, Kraus said, requiring the district to have to fill it all over again.