Maine school districts scramble to hire up for the school year

·6 min read

Aug. 13—School districts around the state and the country are struggling to fill positions for the coming school year and time is running out.

The first day of school for Maine students is just a few weeks away, and the Portland school district still has 53 vacancies in a workforce of roughly 1,400 for a variety of roles that include classroom and special education teachers, bus drivers, custodians and even a principal.

The school district serving Windham and Raymond, which employs 750 people, has 34 positions to fill before students start arriving in classrooms later this month. Buxton's Bonny Eagle school district, which has around 600 employees, has 31 slots to fill.

It's normal for schools to have summer turnover. But this year the struggle to hire teachers has reached crisis proportions.

Nationally, the number of people entering the education profession has been declining for over a decade. Between 2009 and 2019 the number of people enrolling in teacher preparation programs dropped by more than 30 percent. Then the pandemic hit, and being an educator, always a challenging yet low-paid job with difficult working conditions, got even harder. Health concerns, pandemic-induced exhaustion, the politicization of education and a lack of respect for the profession all exacerbated the shortage — pushing more people out the door into other fields or early retirement and leaving those left behind with even more work to do.

In Maine, hiring has gotten steadily more challenging over the past few years and most districts in the state are struggling to staff up for the coming school year, said Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Boards Association.

The same is true nationally. And without enough teachers, school districts are using a variety of last-ditch efforts to ensure that students have someone to teach them this year.

In Texas, some school districts have switched to four-day weeks in an effort to attract and retain teachers. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in July removed the state's bachelor's degree requirement to teach in a classroom full time. And Florida is offering military veterans five-year temporary teaching certificates even if they do not have a bachelor's degree or a teaching certificate.

In Maine, schools are increasingly relying on teachers with conditional certificates rather than bachelor's or master's degrees in education. Given to interested and eligible bachelor's degree graduates by the Maine Department of Education, conditional certificates allow teachers to work toward their teaching certificate while on the job.

Although the educator shortage is affecting districts across the country, it is hitting with uneven impact. In Maine, some districts are finding more luck staffing up than others. Some positions have proved easy to fill. Others not so much.

The Bangor school district has only a couple of classroom teacher positions left to fill. But they are still looking for around 30 educational technicians.

Bangor also is down three speech therapists and one psychologist. With the school year around the corner, the district is considering hiring remote staff for those roles.

Portland Public Schools, the largest district in the state, also is having better luck hiring than in recent years, with fewer positions to fill compared to at the same time in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

But because school districts around the state are competing for the same limited pool of people, one district's win is another's loss.

"HIGH-STAKES MUSICAL CHAIRS'

Experts suspect that school districts that have historically been the hardest to staff — rural, urban and poorer districts with fewer resources — will bear the brunt of the educator shortage.

"Hiring each year feels like high-stakes musical chairs," said Christopher Howell, superintendent of Windham-based Regional School Unit 14. "People are moving around and you're just trying to grab someone as they're walking by their chair and hoping you grab a qualified candidate."

Howell said his district has been fortunate in its ability to find quality candidates, but that for most positions they are receiving fewer applications and therefore choosing from a smaller number of candidates.

"For a high school math teacher position we used to get 10 to 12 applicants, now it's four to five," he said. "It makes it harder to grab people."

The Auburn School District also is receiving just a fraction of the applications it used to receive per position, Superintendent Connie Brown said. "For a classroom teaching position that used to draw 50 applications or more now we'll get maybe six."

Bonny Eagle Superintendent Clay Gleason said his district is still looking for special education teachers and education technician staff. He's hoping to find people to fill those positions before the start of the school year, but said Buxton-based School Administrative District 6 will manage regardless.

"We'll be OK to get started," Gleason said. "But when you start with just what you need and nothing more, it doesn't feel very comfortable. It's better to have substitutes and a spare pool of teachers. But we'll make it work."

Without substitutes and extra support staff, more is needed from teachers who already are on staff, and in many cases overworked and exhausted.

Auburn Superintendent Brown last year had to step in and work as a substitute. At Bonny Eagle, which went the entire year without enough education technicians, elementary teachers had to work lunch duty and support their fellow teachers in other unexpected ways.

"People are willing to do more and pitch in," Gleason said. "But it's exhausting for everyone."

Penny Bishop, the dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine, said the state is going to have to significantly change the way it treats and supports its educators in order to attract and retain them.

SHIFT IN VALUES NEEDED

Bishop commended Gov. Janet Mills for raising the minimum teacher salary from $30,000 to $40,000, but said that more needs to be done.

"We don't value teachers to the extent that other countries do, salaries are low, there are tons of cases of teachers taking part-time jobs to make ends meet, teachers don't feel valued," Bishop said. "We're going to have to make some fundamental shifts to right the ship."

Bishop said Maine is particularly vulnerable to the educator shortage because it is rural, and it is often harder to recruit and retain teachers in rural, remote and isolated places, and because Maine's educator workforce is old, like its population in general, many educators are heading into their retirement years.

Additionally, Maine on average pays its teachers less than surrounding states, making it harder for the state to recruit teachers. During the 2020-21 school year, Maine teachers made an average salary of $57,167, according to the National Educators Association, the nation's largest teachers union. In neighboring New Hampshire, teachers were paid an average of $61,849, in Vermont, $62,483 and in Massachusetts and New York the average salary hovered around $90,000.

In order to compete with other states and professions and solve the educator shortage crisis, Maine and its schools need to continue to increase teacher salaries and grow support for educators, Bishop said.

"Talented folks have lots of choices, there is no reason to choose teaching when they can choose something that provides double the salary out of the gate," she said. "It takes funding to make things better and we must prioritize this. Kids only get one shot at education. There's no more important investment."