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Allen Simonsen substitute teaches

Allen Simonsen substitute teaches an English class at Skyview High School on Feb. 14.

There’s rarely a glut of substitute teachers in Montana. Between the low pay and day-to-day nature of assignments, few view it as a long-term gig.

But a general shortage that’s persisted for years in School District 2 has worsened this year amid low unemployment, to the point that the district’s full-time teachers are trying to find solutions.

“It’s been approaching critical mass,” said Rita Wells, president of the Billings Education Association, the local teachers union.

The group has started a task force examining solutions to the shortage, from pay bumps to a streamlined application process to free coffee.

That the union, which doesn't represent subs, has gotten involved is a nod to integral role of substitutes in maintaining the regular operations of a school without overtaxing full-time teachers and, in turn, costing the district more money.

Economists roundly agree that most labor shortages revolve around pay. SD2 shells out $75 per day for substitutes, with a $10 bump if the sub has a teaching license. Subs are required to have some college education.

“I think it’s a factor,” said SD2 superintendent Greg Upham, who’s worked with the task force. He said that a review of surrounding districts found that Billings paid in the “middle to lower-middle” range.

Wells said the committee has examined more incremental options than sweeping changes; things like providing lunch and coffee for subs or bonuses for consistent subs.

However, a raise is no magic bullet; several districts in Maine have continued to struggle to attract subs despite increasing wages.

Districts across the country have cited low unemployment rates as a factor in shrinking the pool of potential substitutes, and Upham said Billings is no exception.

“There’s just fewer people out there to choose from,” he said.

Low unemployment has also led to a down-tick in interest in custodian and paraprofessional jobs, he said.

Filling in

When a school can’t find a sub to fill a class, it turns to its own. That’s been a more common scenario this year, with teachers using their prep periods to fill in for missing colleagues.

“You do feel a little obligated to help out,” said Teresa Mountains, a Senior High Spanish teacher who’s part of the BEA committee.

The move is voluntary for teachers, and compensation for the extra period is built into their contract. But teachers and administrators said the situation can be a lose-lose.

It’s more expensive for the district, as full-time teachers earn more than the sub pay rate. And the arrangement takes away time that teachers usually use to plan lessons or review student work.

“It’s basically a band-aid,” Upham said. “(Teachers) are already working a full load.”

Too many band aids build up, Wells said.

“If they’re not given that time, it will be very very difficult if not impossible to plan any kind of meaningful lesson,” she said.

And, in some cases, subs are filling in for teachers who are out for training. If teachers can't attend those training sessions, it can hinder the rollout of new initiatives within the district or teachers' individual professional development. 

There’s also the issue of what subs can handle when they can be found. Teachers prepare lesson plans that a sub should be able to use, but that doesn’t mean they can help with past-perfect tense Spanish or the finer points of geometry proofs.

“Most of the time, unless I have a specific sub, I have to pre-teach stuff before,” Mountains said.

But if she knows who’s subbing and whether they’ve got a language background?

“You can have a little more in-depth plans,” she said.

A smaller overall pool means that there's likely fewer specialists within it. 

One of the ideas that the group floated was to create a pool of resident subs who could report to schools where, statistically, there’s almost always an absence to fill. It would help subs avoid the uncertainty of waiting for early-morning notifications of potential jobs for the day. 

Mountains and Wells said that they were encouraged by district administrators' reception to the committee, and that the district would likely take steps to streamline its application process for subs. 

"(The shortage) does affect us," Wells said. "It's not good for them, either."

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.