By CRISTINA JANNEY
As of the start of school last week, Hays USD 489 had about 30 open positions.
All of the district's teacher positions have been filled, but the district is still struggling to fill classified jobs, such as bus drivers, cooks, teachers aides and special education cooperative paraprofessionals.
"So many of these positions are vital," said Chris Hipp, assistant superintendent of business services. "We've got to get the kids here. We've got to keep them fed. We've got to have cooks. We've got to keep them safe. We have to have custodians and maintenance. We've got to be able to support them in the classroom.
"They are vital positions, and they are not easy to fill right now. There's so much competition around town for that same group of people that we're trying to get."
The district has an additional 18 to 20 openings for part-time workers in positions, including crossing guards, after school care and lunch room supervisors.
Chris Hipp, USD 489 assistant superintendent of finance, said the district is struggling to compete for applicants in a shallow pool of workers.
When workers can make more in retail or fast food, it is hard to lure them to education sector jobs, he said. The unemployment rate in Ellis County was 2.7 percent in July.
"There's more competition at certain spots in the economy," Hipp said. "I think our classified positions fall into that."
The district is seeing fewer applications for all positions, including teachers. The district is seeing about half as many applications as it did five years ago. Hipp said USD 489 has had a good supply of teachers from Fort Hays State University. Other districts in Kansas have no been so fortunate.
About 4 percent of teaching jobs — about 1,400 — were unfilled as of July, according to the Kansas News Service. And it's not just a Kansas problem.
A study co-authored by two professors from Kansas State University that was released this month said nationally at least 36,000 teacher positions are vacant along with at least 163,000 positions being held by underqualified teachers.
Because national data is incomplete, researchers were unable to determine if the teacher shortage is the result of a lack of students entering teaching programs or a shortage of teachers in specific specialties in specific districts.
The employment problems are not new, Hipp said. The district was short two to four custodial positions all of last year. The district had to contract for some cleaning services, because it couldn't fill positions.
Contracting costs more and puts stress on the staff the district has, Hipp said.
Transportation is more specialized. The district was two drivers short as of the start of school last week.
Bus drivers must have commercial driver's licenses and extra certifications to drive buses. The district is willing to train employees, but they have to have the applicants, Hipp said, and training takes time — at least three weeks from a hire date.
"When we're short a driver," he said. "We can't go drive a bus."
Most of the paraprofessionals employed by the co-op are part-time and don't receive the same benefits as full-time certified staff.
The co-op has raised paraproffessional pay, but the paras getting full benefits won't likely happen anytime soon. It's just too expensive, Hipp said.
Kyle Carlin, co-op director, estimated full benefits for paras would cost the district about $1.2 million per year.
Statute requires the state to fund 92 percent of special education costs that are not covered by the federal government. However, the state only funded special education at 76.4 percent for the 2021-22 school year, and it did not make any significant advance in closing the funding gap during the 2022 legislative session.
The co-op is based in Hays and covers services for the Hays, Ellis, Victoria and La Crosse school districts, as well as the private schools in those districts. The Russell school district is being slowly phased into the co-op as well.
In attempts to fill the required paraprofessional positions, Hipp said the district has resorted to hiring several college students, who may be able to fit a few hours a week into their schedules, to stitch together one para position.
The district also uses substitutes, pulls teachers from plan time and extends hours for paraprofessionals to fill gaps. However, none of these options are ideal.
"It leads to fatigue and burnout and not as good of services as we would like to provide," Hipp said.
Carlin said this unfortunately does not provide the consistency the district would like to provide to its students.
"We have to be creative in how we get our students' needs met," he said.
Hipp and other administrative staff last year had to fill in at school kitchens, because of a lack of staff. Hipp helped serve lunch at the high school.
Hipp said he doesn't mind pulling kitchen duty, because he gets to spend time in schools and meet students. However, he said kitchen duty takes away time from his main assignment and is not an efficient use of district resources.
If you are interested in applying for a position with USD 489 or the special education co-op, visit the USD 489 website. Click on the employment button on the right hand side of the page.
Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay.