FARMINGTON — As Regional School Unit 9 gears up for its 2021-22 school year, administrators are on a mad dash to hire open positions for teachers and support staff alike across many schools and subjects in the district.

When he first began his tenure as superintendent in July, Chris Elkington said that there were over 75 openings in the district. At the Tuesday, Aug. 24, Board of Directors meeting, Elkington said that there were currently around 50 open positions in the district.

These openings run across the district, but are concentrated at Mt. Blue Middle School, the high school and at Academy Hill School and G.D. Cushing School, both elementary schools. The district is especially lacking in special education, Elkington said.

In the last school year, retirements and resignations have reached double figures, according to Elkington. RSU 9 staff who retired offered “over 600 years of combined service” to the district.

Elkington describes the exodus from RSU 9 as retirements, people leaving for other districts and some people leaving education all together.

Though they’ve made gains on hiring, Elkington describes the current state of open positions at RSU 9 as “a large number of openings.”

Of course, the intrinsic difficulties that accompany teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the district’s ability to retain staff.

“Because of what happened with COVID and the difficulties of online learning and teaching that some people who may have thought they were going to continue for another few years decided to get out,” Elkington said. “They didn’t join to teach by computer.”

But Elkington also explained that the problem has been an ongoing “issue the last few years.”

There are multiple pieces to this puzzle, alongside teaching during the pandemic.

Elkington believes that discord between RSU 9 staff and the administrators/superintendent’s office is partly to blame.

In 2020, Tina Meserve resigned as superintendent after she received a vote of no confidence from 91.3% of the 386 participating teachers and staff in the district.

At the time, Mt. Blue Education Association President Doug Hodum raised concerns about “her treatment of staff, her lack of collaborative problem-solving and her skill set.”

“The animosity…can make a district look less appealing to people who are thinking about moving to teach,” Elkington said. “If in the papers it looks like administration and superintendent’s office and the teachers and the support staff aren’t getting along, all those things do not help.”

Expired teacher contracts and lower-than-average salaries have also made hiring difficult.

“(Staffing shortages) have been an issue and getting a bit worse each year because we did pay below what a lot of the districts around us were paying,” Elkington said. “That’s why the board put a lot of effort into contract negotiations in the last year plus because they could see that our salaries were considerably lower than districts around us.”

In June, the board of directors unanimously approved 2020-2023 contracts for professional staff, following prolonged negotiations.

The board also recently approved the new contracts for support staff, which expired this June.

Contract negotiations between the district and the district’s teacher’s association, the Mt. Blue Education Association, began in January 2020, were disrupted by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed in late spring 2020. Professional staff (such as teachers, nurses, librarians and social workers) had since been working without contracts after they expired in August 2020.

The new contracts make it easier for staff to reach the top of the salary scale at a faster rate and bring the minimum starting salary to $40,000, in accordance with Maine law.

Hodum said he believed the contracts bring about “very competitive wages, which is not something we have typically had in this district for a long time.”

The district also struggles with losing early-career staff, who start at Mt. Blue to gain experience and then move to other districts.

Though they’ve made headway on hiring, the district is still concerned about the number of open positions. Elkington said that all school districts in Maine are struggling to hire.

The last two decades, I can tell you from personal experience, guidance has been extremely hard to find people,” Elkington said. “Now, people are not going into education as they once were.”

Officials at the University of Maine-Farmington confirmed this outlook.

“Nationally, the number of individuals entering teacher preparation programs has decreased over time,” Katherine W. Yardley, associate provost and dean at UMF’s college of education, health, and rehabilitation, said. “While enrollment is steady in some of UMF’s teacher education programs, the number of students enrolling in high need teaching areas, including secondary math, secondary science, and early childhood special education has declined.”

According to research by RAND Education and Labor, “one in four teachers said that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020–2021 school year, compared with one in six teachers who were likely to leave, on average, prior to the pandemic.”

But Mt. Blue faces particularly high numbers of open positions.

Not every district has the numbers like we have,” Elkington said.

So what are they doing to get staffing back up, to ensure that Mt. Blue maintains a high-quality level of education for its students?

Elkington and the administrators are planning multiple modes of attack.

First, administration is working on offering a stronger support system for staff.

“We’re going to have the most supportive induction or onboarding process that we have ever had here,” he said. “We’re giving more supportive time to brand new teachers and support staff.”

Elkington is considering transferring staff in the district to different roles in order to fill some of those gaps. He’s also reaching out to retired staff to have them return part-time.

The district is working on contracting online services for roles like speech therapists or school psychologists for Individualized Education Program write-ups and offering online programs for classes that had to be cut in the high school.

They are also looking into acquiring automated equipment that will reduce hours for custodians to do their work.

However, it’s inherent that the students will see the effects of staffing shortages, whether that be less field trips or bigger class sizes, both of which Elkington said are possibilities.

The district’s ultimate goal for the 2021-22 school year is “to make sure we get every kid back in school” following a year of remote learning and losing students to home-schooling and dropping out. 

Elkington is optimistic that openings will diminish with the renewed contracts for both professional and support staff.

“We feel pretty good and (are hopeful to) see an influx of people applying as they see that the scale has changed.”

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