For Lacey Nelson, the weeks leading up to the start of school are a blur of spreadsheets, meetings, and calls from principals about last-minute teacher resignations.
With less than two weeks to go, Denver Public Schools’ director of talent acquisition is still looking to hire 150 teachers, 275 paraprofessionals, and up to 45 bus drivers. Priorities get reevaluated daily based on reports from the field. A school that was “fine” two days ago suddenly needs two more teachers.
It’s all completely normal.
“In general, we are not seeing anything different this school year than past school years, and I’m not seeing anything that is majorly off,” Nelson said. “It’s a pretty calm year.”
Even as Colorado school districts are holding hire-on-the-spot job fairs and offering signing bonuses, many education leaders told Chalkbeat the challenges are nothing new and that vacancies and hiring are similar to those of years past.
Nikki Jost, executive director of human resources for Mesa County Valley District 51 in western Colorado, said hiring is actually going better this year.
“COVID protocols are different than in years past, we had a 9.1% increase in wages for returning employees, we increased starting salaries across the board, we increased our social media presence, and we have some amazing recruiters,” she wrote in response to a Chalkbeat survey.
But normal doesn’t mean fully staffed.
According to the 2021-22 educator shortage report, Colorado schools couldn’t fill 8% of their open teaching positions last year nor 17% of their special service provider positions. Roughly 9% of paraprofessional or classroom aide positions went unfilled. The number of unfilled positions, as well as the share filled through shortage mechanisms like bringing back retired educators or hiring teachers with an emergency license, has gone up over the past three years, even as the total number of openings has gone down, the report said.
Firm data on this year’s vacancies is hard to come by, both locally and nationally. In the weeks before the start of school, the numbers change daily. Across 10 Colorado districts large and small that responded to Chalkbeat information requests, superintendents and human resources directors said they’ve raised pay, improved benefits, and made other changes in an effort to be competitive.
Denver is touting its health insurance plan, entirely free to employees. The Brighton-based 27J district tells job candidates about its four-day week and investments in mental health supports that take some of the load off teachers. Many districts are offering on-the-job training and help with licensure.
Bus drivers and special education jobs — teachers, special service providers and especially classroom assistants — remain among the hardest positions to fill, officials said. And those vacancies hit children and families hard.
School districts face stiff competition for bus drivers
Many Colorado districts are consolidating bus routes and cutting service in response to driver shortages.
“Last year, we consolidated bus routes and added a non-CDL position, allowing employees in that position to drive smaller vans on many routes,” said Myla Shepherd, chief human resources officer for Adams 12 Five Star Schools serving north Denver suburbs. ”These two measures greatly helped us maintain adequate transportation staffing levels.”
In 27J, transportation office employees and mechanics have to drive bus routes in addition to their other job duties, and students have been placed on wait lists for bus service. About 10% of 100 bus driver positions are open there.
In Jeffco Public Schools, nearly a third of 283 bus driver positions were open less than two weeks before the start of the school year. In a July email to families, Jeffco Chief Operating Officer Steve Bell laid out a plan to gradually restore bus routes as more drivers are hired and trained. In the meantime, students with disabilities would continue to get the highest priority.
Trevor Byrne, a Jeffco bus driver and president of Jefferson County Transportation Association, the union representing drivers, said the bottom line is pay. Even with a recent pay increase to $21.70 an hour, drivers have a lot of options that pay more. Byrne said he stays because he loves working with kids.
“I’m not disparaging sanitation workers, but you can make $35 an hour driving a garbage truck,” Byrne said. “How important is it to transport our special needs kids versus taking garbage away from someone’s house?”
Nelson, of Denver Public Schools, agreed.
“You think about Amazon, they need drivers,” she said. “The post office, FedEx, UPS, they all need drivers.”
Special education jobs have seen shortages for years
Superintendents and human resources directors said jobs working with students with disabilities continue to be among the hardest to fill. Special service providers like occupational therapists and speech language pathologists can make more money in private practice. Classroom aides can make more money in retail. And there simply aren’t enough special education teachers for all the open positions.
In a bid for experienced educators, Adams 12 now offers unlimited credit for years of service in other districts to special education teachers and special service providers.
Special education paraprofessionals have been particularly hard to hire. These educators provide one-on-one and small group support to students with a variety of disabilities, including students with complex physical and emotional needs. Often these jobs combine low pay with major responsibilities.
Lori Williams, a special education para in Jeffco, said low staffing makes it harder to give students the support they deserve.
“We’re supposed to push them into a general ed classroom and sometimes we can’t do that because we’re short-staffed,” she said. “And other times students that are in a general ed classroom don’t get the support that they need.”
Denver just raised pay for special education paras from $16.50 an hour to $21 an hour and has seen hiring pick up. As of Tuesday, the district had 137 special education para positions still to fill.
“Often they are working one-on-one with a student with really high needs, and they need additional training and qualifications,” Nelson said. “Finding someone with the qualifications — not just the on-paper qualifications but the skills to do that job — can be really challenging.
“When you earn $16.50, it’s easy on that bad day to turn around and apply to something else.”
Even a few vacancies can make a difference
Staffing challenges vary by community and even within districts. One school might be operating as normal while another has parent volunteers serving cold lunches.
Marty Gutierrez, a middle school math teacher in Adams 12, said there are four open teaching positions out of 40 in his building, including teachers who gave notice in August to take better paid or less stressful jobs, often still within education.
“People can go where they want to because there are so many openings,” he said.
That means he’s starting the year unsure who his planning partners will be, if he’ll get his planning periods, or if he’ll have to pick up extra classes. And he worries it will be harder to set expectations and norms for students and establish a strong school culture if there’s a rotating cast of substitutes across multiple classes.
In addition to two science teachers, a math teacher, and a special education teacher, his school lost its head custodian over the summer. These are all positions where districts report hiring challenges.
“It’s affecting us top to bottom,” Gutierrez said.
Chris Selle, superintendent of the 681-student Meeker district in northwestern Colorado, said until this year, he’d always been fully staffed by August. But this summer, three teachers backed out of contracts and the elementary school principal resigned. In a small district, losing one teacher can mean doubling class sizes for that grade or subject.
This week, Selle and the school board decided not to try to fill the elementary principal job this school year. Instead, Selle will lead the elementary school along with handling his superintendent duties.
“Some things just won’t get done,” he said.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.