Nearly every industry in the country has faced a staffing shortage throughout the pandemic. For local school districts, limited staff pools are starting to impact the services they offer.
Bonneville Joint School District 93’s staffing shortages have been compounded by the high COVID-19 case transmission rate. Executive Director of Planning and Personnel Heath Jackson said the district is in a dire situation with the limited staff it currently has.
“We’re probably in as dire of a situation as I’ve seen in the district,” Jackson said. “It feels like as fast as we’re able to hire somebody, we lose somebody else.”
On Tuesday, District 93 had 30 support paraprofessionals and six custodial positions that were unfilled, Jackson said.
The district’s COVID-19 response plan accounts for this. On Sept. 22, school board members approved an addition to the plan that stated staff absenteeism could result in a school closure if it created an unsafe environment.
District 93 Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme said during the meeting that the district has been struggling with staffing in its child nutrition department. A COVID-19 outbreak within the transportation department could also create problems and employee absenteeism could prevent the district from being able to provide transportation or child nutrition services.
During the Idaho Falls School District 91 State of the District Address on Oct. 5, Superintendent Jim Shank said one of the challenges the district is facing this year was recruiting and retaining staff members.
“If you’re a business owner, I don’t know if that’s any different (for you) because right now we’re in a very interesting hiring situation across the nation (and) across the state where the hiring pools are not thick. They’re quite thin,” Shank said during the address.
Shank added that one factor that has led to the thin hiring pool is the district being unable to stay competitive with wages.
“That’s something that we need to keep up with the Jones’ if you will when it comes to offering a salary that people feel they’re being fairly compensated for their work,” he said during the address.
District 91 Director of Communications and Community Engagement Margaret Wimborne said in an email to the Post Register that the district currently has more than 90 positions open for staff. Around the start of the school year last year, the district had 72 open positions.
“Like most school districts around the state and around the nation, we’re having the most challenging time finding substitute teachers, child nutrition staff and paraprofessionals,” Wimborne said in the email.
District 91 recruited heavily for school bus drivers over the summer and filled most of those positions, but the district is always seeking additional drivers, she said in the email.
Jackson said one reason why District 93 hasn’t been able to fill its open positions is due to the pay its able to offer to staff. For classified positions, or positions where a certificate is not necessary, the district offers wages that pay just under $10 per hour.
“When we’re competing with almost every business in southeast Idaho that’s starting at $11 and reaching upwards to $15-$18 an hour, we’re behind in the competitive wage and it’s hurting us in tracking quality applicants,” Jackson said.
The staffing shortages have caused supervisory staff to step in and take on more responsibilities so the district can provide essential services such as transportation and child nutrition, Jackson said. Classrooms have had to shuffle teachers and paraprofessionals because there hasn’t been one day where substitute teachers have been able to fill in for all the teachers across the district who were out.
“It worries me that it creates a burnout situation that we shouldn’t be seeing this early in the school year,” he said.
Finding substitute teachers has also been an issue for school districts all across the state. Gov. Brad Little earlier allocated $10 million dollars for districts to use to offer better wages for substitute teachers. However, Jackson said District 93 hasn’t been able to use this fund the way district leadership would like.
He said the reason for this was due to the funds needing to be used by Dec. 15 which only gives the district one substitute pay cycle to use the $400,000 it’s been given and put it into the pockets of staff.
“The money would’ve been fantastic if it would’ve been allocated to use during the entire school year,” Jackson said.
What the district has done with the money is create bonuses for classified staff and substitute teachers, he added. Employees will receive about a $600 bonus in December and substitutes will get a $125 bonus for working 10 days in one month.
Another issue with the governor’s aid is it’s a temporary solution and can’t be an ongoing expense, Jackson said. About 90% of the district’s budget is allocated to employee wages and benefits. He said a true difference can be made through supplemental levies to increase wages and he hopes community members will continue to support the district’s staff and help it strive for a better situation.
Jackson is grateful for the staff who have worked throughout the pandemic, he said.
“I just think our staff is amazing,” he said. “We have a top-notch staff who are looking out for the best interests of our students.”