Substitute shortage felt at AASD

Full-time teachers being asked to fill in

Pennsylvania school districts have a substitute teacher problem, and Altoona Area is no exception.

Altoona Area School District is experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers, and it’s taking a toll on full-time teachers who are asked to cover for vacancies in addition to maintaining their own schedule, Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said.

The district’s 70 active substitutes filled 3,914 vacancies that occurred for reasons ranging from sickness to professional development outside the classroom since the beginning of the school year.

There were 787 vacancies so far this year that substitutes could not fill. Instead, full-time teachers already with a full schedule filled in.

“It wears down our faculty when they are asked to cover several times per week. It messes up their planning,” Prijatelj said during a school board presentation Monday in the William P. Kimmel board room.

The lack of substitutes has worsened since last year, Prijatelj said. He said the district actively recruited, but its contract with Substitute Teacher Services Inc. “is not getting them into the classroom.”

“It’s a concern as to whether we continue with STS or look for another substitute service,” Prijatelj said to the board, which would have to vote on changing services.

However, there are larger issues at play that are hurting districts’ substitute teaching pools. State law prohibits retired teachers from substituting, and there’s been a steep drop in new education graduates from universities.

State law governing Pennsylvania’s struggling pension system, the Public School Employees’ Retirement System, allows retired teachers to return to substitute service only in proven personnel emergency situations. But district solicitor Carl Beard said it wasn’t always that way.

“Back in the day, you could have a retired teacher substitute. Then PSERS came about saying ‘Oh my goodness we can’t have retirees come back and teach’… If they (Legislature) would get rid of archaic rules that they have surrounding PSERS, then the substitute teacher shortage that is stifling and drowning schools in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, could probably be somewhat corrected,” Beard said.

PSERS has an unfunded liability of $42.7 billion as of June 30, 2016, according to a PSERS report issued February 2017.

Hypothetically, allowing retirees to serve as substitutes could increase their benefits and add to the system’s unfunded liability, but that doesn’t have to happen, Beard said.

“The PSERS system is so messed up, how much more can it get messed up by just saying (to retirees who want to substitute) ‘You are just not going to have any money paying into PSERS.’ They, (Legislature) can carve it out if they went back into session and voted on it… That would alleviate a big problem in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But they seem to get lost in all the other muck they seem to focus on.”

Competing for newly certified teachers is also more difficult than it was in the past.

Prijatelj said he is working on positioning Altoona Area to receive teaching graduates from local colleges including Juniata College, Saint Francis University, Mount Aloysius and Penn State Altoona.

However, he noted an overall drop in teaching graduates.

Data from the Pennsyl­vania Department of Education show a 46 percent drop in teaching certificates issued over the past three years. In the 2014-15 year, 12,182 certificates were issued compared with 6,459 in 2016-17.

A majority of Altoona Area’s active substitutes –37 of 70 substitutes — are not teaching certified but are volunteers through the district’s guest teaching program, said Tamara Thompson, Altoona Area human resources supervisor.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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