By Joseph Kolb
ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - Just two days before classes resume, New Mexico's biggest school district faces a shortage of almost 200 teachers, officials say, with the majority of the unfilled positions in special education and elementary grades.
With some 87,000 students due to return to Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) on Wednesday, the district is still looking for 392 staff, including 198 teachers.
APS spokeswoman Johanna King said the shortages represented just a small fraction of the district's total teacher roster of around 6,300. But she said they were a challenge.
APS will likely need short- and long-term substitutes, and it would also ask teachers to sacrifice some of their preparatory time in order to take on more classes and to have bigger class sizes.
APS requires that substitute teachers have at least 60 college credits, while other districts require a high school degree.
The elementary and special education areas are typically problematic, King said. "It's not unusual for those departments to deal with teacher shortages all year," the spokeswoman said.
She said APS did see an uptick in retirements after the last school year, but could not say why.
Some recently retired teachers said that some colleagues have decided to leave the profession because a new grading system for teachers places unrealistic expectations on educators by tying their scores closely to their students' performance. Too many factors are not under the control of the teachers, say critics of the new system.
There is "no consideration of high rates of poverty in New Mexico, which ranks among the highest in the country, transient populations and special needs," said one recently retired teacher, Rachel Muniz.
Teacher morale also took a knock earlier this year, Muniz said, when New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez was recorded saying in a campaign meeting that teachers were well paid, given they have two or three months vacation a year.
Larry Beherns, spokesman for the New Mexico Public Education Department, said he could not provide current numbers for teacher vacancies statewide.
But Beherns said the new teacher evaluation system is "critical in improving education," saying that the federal government said the old way of doing things was "broken."
(Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Leslie Adler)