Augusta Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Katherine Grondin said there has always been a challenge in filling substitute and part-time positions, but now that problem has grown increasingly difficult.

The district pays $25 an hour for permanent subs and are about “half-way there” in terms of having the 11 budgeted positions filled. The projected goal is to have a permanent sub at each building within the school system, and she thinks at this point in time, there are around three.

“‘(Are) there enough subs?’ has always been a question and always been a challenge, but as the unemployment rate went down, it’s been more challenging,” she said. “People are finding full-time, full-benefit positions, and some people are enjoying having more flexibility — sometimes someone who is a snow bird can do a couple months here and there, but can’t do the full year.”

Augusta Public Schools are not alone — school districts across the state and central Maine have struggled to fill positions, mainly in the areas of bus drivers, but also educational technicians, or ed techs, and substitute positions.

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Grondin said the district has done well in hiring teachers and some positions were filled after the school year started by people who decided to move to Maine after the summer. As for bus driver and custodial positions, Grondin said the district has budgeted for a custodial position through coronavirus relief funds, but has yet to fill it. They are also looking for an interventionist to help with students’ needs moving forward.

Transportation has “held up pretty well,” Grondin said, but they are “hanging on by a shoestring.”

“The challenges are when drivers are absent, she (Transportation Director Tracy Brown-Gysi) has to end up driving a bus, but they also help as a team to figure it out.”

REGIONAL SCHOOL UNIT 38

Transportation Director Kelly Thompson gave an update at the beginning of the month on RSU 38 bus driver situation and said overall, the district is doing well in retaining new drivers, but still having problems filling bus routes.

The Readfield-based district will have four new drivers by the end of the month if they pass their written exam, but the department has still had to cancel bus routes as well as modify bus schedules in order to work around the positions they have.

Adult Education Director Steve Vose has been successful in retaining students to take the free class to earn a class B license to drive a school bus. One of the issues in retaining interested bus drivers is around the price of the class to receive the license to drive a bus.

He got creative and drove around towns within an hour radius of the school district and put flyers up to advertise the class and by offering the class for free, through a grant with the Bangor Public Schools, the class completely filled up for the month of September.

As for substitute teachers, the district is struggling.

School board members at the Sept. 15 business meeting took out the allotted money for long-term subs out of fear they would be unable to fill the positions. Like other districts, the current ed techs were able to move up to teaching positions, in some cases, and left a shortage.

The general consensus among the board and Superintendent Jay Charette is  that a long-term investment wouldn’t do much in retaining long-term subs since there is still the problem around sick days and vacancies. They think it is better to have many short-term subs than try to retain a few long-term subs.

“Subs are an issue, and I’ve thought about making a partnership with buildings for subs, but I don’t think long-term subs is a good use,” Charette said. “It seems like a lot of money and not going to solve the problem for next year.”

It was brought up, too, if the district wanted to hire a person to help with learning gaps, it might become increasingly difficult with position shortages.

“We can advertise, but again, I’m not sure if we are going to find people qualified to run interventionist support,” Charette said. “Sometimes it’s the best teachers needed and the way hiring is across the board, I don’t think we are going to find people qualified that will make an immediate impact.”

MSAD 11

Subs are the main issue for Gardiner-based Maine School Administrative District 11.

According to Superintendent Patricia Hopkins, the district currently has 35 active subs when in years prior to the pandemic, there were around 100 active subs. The district is having a tough time with bus drivers and are down five drivers. As for ed techs, MSAD 11 is short four to six positions, as well as having an issue hiring a speech and language teaching position.

Hopkins said the district’s pay is “competitive” and “we pay 100% single health and dental” year round for bus drivers, teacher aide and teacher positions though the individuals only work during the school year.

At the last school board meeting, MSAD 11’s Director of Special Services Elisha Morris spoke of the impact the bus driver shortage had for the students who require special services. Morris reached out to other special service agencies to see if they could help provide transportation, but they are all experiencing the same issues and shortages.

“Transportation has been a challenge because most in the program need special transportation,” Morris said. “In the past, we were able to pull ed techs to drive vans in order to provide that transportation, but they have needed to be in the building for other support.”

WINTHROP PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Since the Winthrop Public Schools use a contracted bus service, Northeast Charter, the district has not had to hire any bus driver positions and has not had issues within the bus services.

The district is having trouble finding substitute teachers and has filled all teacher vacancies but one position, according to Superintendent Jim Hodgkin.

RSU 2

Superintendent Tonya Arnold thinks Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 is doing “better than most” with the district’s vacant positions. Since the district has promoted most of the ed tech positions to full-time teaching roles, the district is struggling to now fill the ed tech roles, Arnold said.

“Substitutes of all kinds would be helpful,” she said, adding the role of substitute bus driver needs to be filled.

But besides subs, the district needs custodians.

“Teamwork, learning, advancement, holidays and the insurance benefits are additional advantages to working full-time in the school district,” she said.

RSU 18

Superintendent Carl Gartley said it’s “always a challenge” to find substitute teachers and part-time workers for Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18, but this year has “shaped up to be especially difficult.”

Gartley said for bus drivers and teachers, the district has a full staff, but can always use more subs. He said in a normal year, there are some permanent bus driver substitutes who work part-time, four hours a day and the district could use a couple more of those positions as well as three or four people to drive students to sports and after-school events.

“I am worried at times we will struggle to cover everything we need,” he said. “We have a great staff and great leaders in each school. They are working closely with parents and the community to try and make sure we have the staff we need to support our students.”

He said the community usually steps up and the district is “going to need them again this year.”

As for ed techs, the district is short staffed, but Gartley said it “changes on a fairly regular basis.” RSU 18 would hire six or seven more if they could find them.

WATERVILLE PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM

The Waterville Public School System, like RSU 38, has a bus driver program in place to educate and train interested people in driving a school bus. Superintendent Eric Haley said the program has been successful in retaining drivers for the district.

Interested teachers were able to take the training and have stepped up in areas they are needed and though they have stepped up, most teachers are unable to drive the bus early in the morning. Haley said subs are mostly what the bus department needs.

Most needed within the Waterville Public School System are ed techs. Haley said they are down around 14 positions. Starting ed techs get paid minimum wage, $12.15 an hour and get health benefits. He said the other day, he drove past McDonald’s which was hiring employees starting at $14 an hour.

“I’m meeting (Friday) with the board chair and other negotiators to talk seriously about what we need to do in order to be competitive,” Haley said. “They (ed techs) do some of the hardest work and the hardest lifting.”

Before the pandemic, he said the district had “no problem hiring” individuals for the positions.

“Some years are different than others, but it was never a serious issue,” he said. “With the pandemic, it’s been awfully hard to find, but that’s no different than any other business here in Waterville, everywhere is looking for help.”

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