While the national teacher shortage continues, and has affected - notably - rural Vermont, it's been a mixed bag in Windham County school districts as administrators prepare for the first day of school.
For Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) Superintendent Mark Speno, the past year has been the most difficult in memory when it comes to hiring, yet Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) Superintendent William Anton says it hasn't been out of the ordinary there.
“We're doing a lot better today than a few weeks ago,” Speno said this week. “Frankly, I've never really seen anything like it in terms of how difficult it's been to hire school personnel. It's really been our largest challenge as a district through the spring and summer. We're still hiring, and we still have openings.”
“But we had more than 20 openings last week, including some crucial classroom teacher positions, and we had three classroom teacher openings filled in the past day - that's a good feeling,” he continued. “If we didn't have those filled, we'd be doing some problem solving.”
Anton's experience has been one of having “not a very big turnover.”
“A few retirements, a few people moved to new jobs, but nothing out of range of the last few years,” he said.
Projections suggest that through 2026, Vermont will see 230 average annual job openings for elementary school teachers, 60 average annual job openings for middle school teachers, and 160 average annual job openings for secondary school teachers.
The average public school teacher's salary in Vermont was $53,103 as of July 26, with the range typically falling between $44,352 and $64,746.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the average cost of living in the state for a typical individual is about $47,397 per year.
The Vermont Agency of Education says staffing shortages - special education staffing shortages in particular - have become a “significant concern” for many districts.
Several initiatives are being introduced in hope of assuaging the shortages.
The Vermont Legislature has passed a bill to allow retired teachers to serve as temporary hires in emergency situations when no other viable candidates have applied.
The Vermont Agency of Education is also allowing early childhood and special education teachers to teach with temporary licenses while pursuing full licensure.
Reasons are 'multi-layered,' Speno says
“We are having trouble, but we're getting somewhere,” Speno said of WSESU's hiring issues. “Our [human resources] director has been plugging through, and we've been approving hires all summer long.”
At the start of summer, Speno said, the district, with more than 700 staff positions, had about 40 openings across 10 schools. Now, fewer than 20 openings remain before school starts Aug. 30.
What does he think the problem is caused by?
“I think it's multi-layered,” Speno said, noting the pandemic and attendant expectations by parents and community members to bring students to speed quickly after a year-plus of off-site, virtual learning.
“I think COVID-19 has been a major impact,” he continued. “And all we've asked of educators over the past three years and how that's changed. It's been really frustrating.”
Other factors come into play as well.
“People aren't afraid to share their opinions,” Speno said. “Plus, people who have reached retirement age have taken that opportunity, given Covid and how difficult that has made our profession,” he added.
Last school year, Speno said, WSESU hired about 100 new employees. At the start of this school year, another group of 100 will begin work as well.
“It presents a challenge,” he said. “You lose a lot of historical knowledge built over time and you pivot to transition to support new educators - which is very exciting, but at the same time you have the challenge of moving forward with new professional development while having to backfill.”
Speno said Covid also precipitated resignations.
“Teachers everywhere feel under tremendous pressure,” he said. “Our teachers were working very long days, and I think a number of them looked at themselves and said, 'I just can't do this anymore.' And I think a lot of teachers are getting out of teaching.”
The superintendent described what he called “a giant societal crisis.”
“I think people in those positions get it first, get a lot of pressure about what they're expected to accomplish despite the general upheaval going on,” he said.
Speno also noted a dearth of candidates.
“It's been a day-to-day thing and we haven't had nearly the number of candidates applying for these positions,” he said.
He noted that a recent Vermont Superintendents Association survey of all supervisory unions in the state showed more than 1,200 openings in education.
“That's a lot of positions to fill in the month of August,” Speno said. “So given that figure, I feel pretty fortunate, but again, moving forward we have to support new staff.”
WSESU names interim principal, filling one big gap
One gap in leadership at Brattleboro Union High School has been at least temporarily addressed.
Parents, students, community members and even administrators and school board directors have been awaiting news about Principal Steve Perrin, who has been on administrative leave since spring break without any further news of his future status in that role.
“When anyone is put on administrative leave, there exists the possibility that the school board could need to make a decision regarding that person and, because we're elected officials, that carries legal weight, so they treat us like a jury,” said WSESU Personnel Committee Chair Anne Beekman.
“They'll tell me pending the completion of some kind of investigation, which I know nothing about,” she said.
A few weeks ago, Cassie Damkoehler, who had been hired as one of two assistant principals at BUHS this summer, has been formally given the title of interim principal. She will assisted in leading the school by an assistant principal and dean of students.
Beekman also noted the “very serious housing shortage” as affecting the candidates' pool.
“Our superintendent for a year, Andy Skarzynski, never did find a house, and that may have contributed to his leaving,” she said of Speno's predecessor, who left the district after barely one year.
Covid, housing, pressure, and pay all play into the equation.
“Across the country right now, it's kind of a sellers' market for teachers,” said Speno. “They can go wherever they want.”
In WNESU, virtual special ed teachers
Windham Northeast Supervisory Union will employ virtual special education teachers, at least for a time.
Superintendent Andy Haas, who has oversight of 350 staff members in six school buildings, is feeling pretty lucky, but he still has some openings on staff.
“We lost a good amount of teachers,” he said. “Some left the profession, some went to other districts for various reasons. We currently have one open classroom teaching position and a couple interventionists and a library media specialist.”
“We've actually had a pretty good run to fill our positions, which we're very thankful for,” Haas said.
“One area we had our biggest struggle in is special education teachers, so we're having to do some contracting with some virtual teachers to fill those positions,” he added. “And we have a part-time school counselor, but we haven't had the problem of lots of teachers out.”
For Haas, the reasons why are also multi-tiered, but the school climate post-pandemic has been affected by the pressures to catch up from the disruption to student learning that took place during the pandemic.
Haas said when he's spoken with teachers, “the climate has been a struggle.”
“I think it's put everyone on edge a little and things you used to tolerate, you don't so much,” he said, describing “just the overall stress and demands from parents, administrators, the community, and then students who lost a lot of learning so they're behind and the expectation that you're gonna bring them up to where they're supposed to be right away.”
“People want it to be normal and it's just going to take time,” Haas said. “That took out a lot of teachers.”
Haas said in addition that the WNESU also had an older population of teachers and, as a result, “quite a few retirements.”
“A lot of teachers near retirement when Covid hit decided to move up their retirement,” Haas said. “I also think teachers having the ability to move and maybe make more money in another district was another piece. Some folks went to Windham Southeast and some to New Hampshire.”
WCSU: Leland & Gray to stay open, but still considering elementary consolidation
Superintendent William Anton says he's not seen much turnover in the teaching staff at all the eight schools in his district, but school may start without a nurse or social worker on staff.
“All classroom teaching positions are filled,” he said. “We have a few specialty positions that we are still aiming to fill: English language learners, academic support, social worker, and nurse.”
“It is a challenging time to work in education,” Anton said. “It is a very difficult profession, and the Covid experience amplified the intensity and the challenges for schools, families, and communities. We are very fortunate to have the team we have and to welcome some very engaged new colleagues as well.”
Here, potentially closing the Leland & Gray high school was hotly debated but, on Aug. 1, the school board voted unanimously to continue running the school.
However, the issue of potentially consolidating elementary schools - which would impact approximately 200 students in three schools currently - is still being considered.
The current proposal being discussed is to combine the three-school student population into two schools, which have not been identified as the concept, brought forth by the Elementary Task Force, was to combine to two school buildings without suggesting which two to retain.