Oklahoma City Public Schools isn’t the only school district having a tough time filling classrooms with teachers.
Districts throughout the state are saddled with vacancies, and many are opting to hire substitutes and under-qualified instructors to counter the shortage, according to a survey conducted by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
“It’s certainly not the best case scenario for our students,” Shawn Hime, the association’s executive director, said Wednesday.
Districts representing nearly three-fourths of the state’s public school enrollment completed the survey during the first two weeks of August and reported more than 800 vacancies.
More than half of districts with vacancies have sought emergency certification for teachers who aren’t fully qualified to teach the subject and/or the grade level for which they were hired. About half of districts responding to the survey intend to use short-term or long-term substitutes in place of full-time teachers.
“The shortage is certainly real,” said Jim McCharen, a veteran educator who is superintendent of Choctaw-Nicoma Park Schools. “I’ve been in this business a long time and I never thought I would see the day we can’t find qualified teachers in Oklahoma.”
Low salaries and dissatisfaction are among the reasons teachers are choosing to leave the profession or moving to states that pay more, education officials said.
Hime said teachers in surrounding states earn between $2,000 and $10,000 more than teachers in Oklahoma, depending on experience and subject.
“Salary is obviously a big part of it,” said Phil Bacharach, a spokesman with the state Education Department. “There has been a problem with mentoring programs and professional development along with the ability to be promoted in the teaching profession.”
The Oklahoma City district has reached out to retirees and recent college graduates to cut its number of vacancies from about 150 to about 70. The remaining spots are being filled by substitutes.
“Of course we want a highly qualified teacher in every single classroom, but short- and long-term substitutes have value and serve a purpose in the interim,” said Chuck Tompkins, the district’s interim chief of human resources. “We are working diligently to hire the best and brightest teachers for our students and we are grateful to have caring and competent substitutes in place as we continue to work toward that goal.”
To counter the shortages, district leaders have outlined a plan to upgrade hiring practices by offering higher salaries and compensation practices, along with signing and relocation bonuses.
Monday night, the school board approved a pay raise for teachers. Beginning July 1, first-year teachers will receive an additional $650 annually in salary, not including benefits.
Oklahoma City Superintendent Rob Neu, speaking to a group of educators and community leaders Wednesday, announced a partnership with Oklahoma City Community College and the University of Central Oklahoma to forgive college debt of students who graduate and teach in the district for three years.
Other districts, many of which are cash-strapped, are finding creative ways to keep teachers. Clinton Public Schools, about 90 miles west of Oklahoma City, loans teachers a laptop and iPad for personal use and offers a $1,250 bonus in December.
“I think it’s helped with retention and morale, but I don’t think it helps with recruitment,” said Superintendent Kevin Hime, who is Shawn Hime’s brother. “We want to have a highly effective teacher in every classroom, but we’re choosing from applicants that make that difficult.”
McCharen, of Choctaw-Nicoma Park schools, said teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated.
“The bottom line is you get what you pay for,” McCharen said. “We’re not paying them as professionals or treating them like professionals, and that’s a recipe for people leaving the profession.”