Staff shortages as school year approaches

By SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN

Monitor staff

Published: 08-29-2023 2:51 PM

With the start of the school year just days away, school districts are still racing to complete their hiring for teaching and support staff positions.

The school district that covers Weare, Henniker and Stoddard has at least four vacant teacher positions and at least 10 open paraprofessional positions scattered across the three towns.

The middle school in Weare is facing the challenge of having three unfilled teacher positions, with the most critical gap being the absence of a seventh grade math teacher.

Superintendent Jacqueline Coe acknowledged that the challenge of hiring educators has progressively grown. Typically, such vacancies are resolved by August, but this year has been different, she said.

“This year, we’re going to do what we need to do and we have great people and who prioritize students,” said Coe. “I have no doubt we’re going to work as hard as we can to meet the needs of students.”

However, vacancies are not spread evenly among districts and sometimes not within the same administrative unit. John Stark Regional High School in Weare, for instance, is fully staffed with the exception of a reserve girls freshman volleyball coach.

Vacancies tend to be worse in lower-paying school districts as teachers will leave to take a job where salaries are higher, like in Bow and Concord. Coe said several teachers left the Weare district for opportunities in Hillsborough or Concord, where salaries are at least $10,000 to $20,000 higher.

Concord Superintendent Kathleen Murphy said the district faces no challenges in teacher recruitment this year due to its higher pay scale compared to several other school districts and that the district is prepared to welcome children on Wednesday with fully staffed classrooms.

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“Our school board has been very clear about paying teachers what they feel is an adequate salary for the work that they do,” said Murphy. “Not only do we attract teachers from other districts, but we also retain them.”

Even in high-paying districts like Bow, Dunbarton, Concord and Hopkinton, which have a full staff of teachers, they are still desperately seeking paraprofessionals and bus drivers.

Specifically, Bow seeks to hire 11 paraprofessionals, Concord is actively looking for 22 and Hopkinton aims to fill two paraprofessional positions.

“Paraprofessionals are so important and they are assigned to some of our students with the highest level of need, and they are vital in helping those students navigate their school day and be successful not only academically but socially and as a member of our school community,” said Shannon Kruger, principal at Allenstown School District, which has been struggling to hire school nurses and paraprofessionals.

Finding qualified school nurses with specific certifications and registered nurse status has proven to be a challenging task in the education sector, mirroring the wider struggle in hospitals and senior care facilities to hire healthcare workers.

“It can be very hard to compete with what they (nurses) can make in the hospitals compared to what school districts can pay,” said Kruger. “We are in the process of securing a school nurse right now, but that has been an all summer. There just are not a lot of candidates out there.”

The Allenstown School District, dealing with its share of departures among teachers this year, found that the majority of these departures were driven by the desire to work in proximity to their homes or within their own local school districts.

“In my opinion, this is the best career in the world because I love working with kids so much,” said Kruger. “But I do understand very clearly the challenges that school districts are up against in today’s world.”

David Levesque, the principal at Franklin High School, which has a critical shortage of two teachers in both math and science, said a combination of factors are behind the vacancies in schools. These include the insufficient number of individuals entering the education field, the current political climate and, importantly, the pay.

“It seems that the schools that are impacted a little bit more seem to be the schools that are not as affluent,” said Levesque, who is president-elect for the state’s Association of School Principals.

Support staff and bus driver positions have been vacant for at least three years, but Concord has worked around the shortage by adjusting caseloads and switching up bus routes.

“It’s not a full-time job; it’s not a year-round job. It’s only a school-year job, so that might be a detriment for people applying,” Murphy explained. “I think the fact that the unemployment rate is so low, there’s not a lot of people available to fill those positions.”

In Franklin, the average teacher’s salary stands at $50,250, while the highest-paying district in Merrimack County, Concord, offers an average of $81,617. Other districts like Kearsarge Regional, Hopkinton and Bow closely trail behind with average salaries of $67,426, $69,535 and $69,055, respectively.

To keep pace with other districts and remain competitive, the Weare School District hopes to present a revised teacher’s contract to the public in March for the upcoming year. Their objective is to place the district in a more favorable position for the next academic term.

“I do think it’s a little worse than it’s been, than our neighbors. Their contracts have increased,” said Coe. “We’ve always been lower, but we didn’t keep pace with the increases that happened around us.”

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