TWIN FALLS — Pirating is a growing problem in Magic Valley schools. But there’s no seafaring involved.
Superintendent Ron Anthony has noticed other school districts calling his teachers in Buhl trying to recruit them.
It’s a growing problem as the teacher shortage — which has affected Idaho and other states nationwide — persists.
So far this summer, some Magic Valley school officials say the hiring outlook is better than expected. But they’re more aggressively recruiting and starting the hiring process earlier.
“It’s more competitive now than it’s been,” Wendell School District Superintendent Greg Lowe said. And the teacher shortage, he added, is “really scary right now.”
Dave Harbison, spokesman for the Idaho Education Association, said he doesn’t think the teacher shortage has improved over the last few years.
And “there’s no question that rural areas are having a harder time,” he said.
For many school districts, finding special education, math and science teachers used to be the main problem. But now, it’s becoming difficult to fill mainstream jobs, such as for elementary school teachers.
It’s ironic Idaho’s education funding is on the upswing and school districts have a better financial opportunity to hire, but there aren’t as many job applicants, Cassia County School District spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said.
And as school districts are in the midst of hiring season, “there’s always a lot of anxiety prior to a new school year starting,” she said.
The Idaho Board of Education is “very aware” of the teacher shortage, said Critchfield, who’s a member of the board. The group is working with universities to see how to better attract students to teaching programs.
“As baby boomers leave the profession, we’re really going to see the results of less students choosing the colleges of education,” she said.
So why is there a teacher shortage? Some factors include low pay and a divisive political environment surrounding public education.
One step toward improving pay: Idaho’s career ladder law, which took effect in July 2015. Over five years, pay increases are designed to help attract and retain teachers.
Number of Job Openings
In Minidoka County, the school district is “considerably ahead” of last year with hiring, Superintendent Ken Cox said.
The district has hired 25 teachers and has five positions left to fill, including for two elementary teachers, high school teachers and a school counselor.
“We’re still struggling to find highly-qualified candidates,” Cox said.
In Hansen, Superintendent Kristen Beck said the hiring season has gone smoothly. “Overall, I’m happy with what we’ve been able to do. We’re actually feeling thankful and lucky.”
The school district, which has about 350 students, has filled most of its jobs for next school year. For elementary school teaching jobs, there’s typically about 10 applicants per opening.
But it’s harder to find middle and high school teachers. In the five years Beck has been in Hansen, the school been through four science teachers. “It’s been a difficult position to fill for each year,” she said.
The Twin Falls School District has hired 47 teachers and there’s 24 positions left to fill for next school year.
Human resources director Shannon Swafford said she knows there’s a teacher shortage, but she’s “cautiously optimistic.”
In total, 20 job openings were a result of two new elementary schools — Rock Creek and Pillar Falls — opening in August.
Sometimes, teachers are hired at the last minute, such as the day before teacher orientation in August. “We always seem to make it work out,” Swafford said.
In Jerome, the district has hired 27 teachers, but there are still 12 open positions.
“It’s not unusual to hire a few positions in the summer, but not this large of a number,” Superintendent Dale Layne said, and there’s fewer applicants.
All five Jerome special education openings have been filled, though. That’s largely because the district advertised early.
The Wendell School District has filled six of its nine vacant positions. Lowe said he feels pretty lucky.
In Cassia County, there’s 47 openings. That includes teachers and staff members such as coaches and school bus drivers.
There’s a limited pool of job applicants, leading school districts to find more aggressive recruiting strategies.
“We’re kind of going after the same group of people, especially here in the Magic Valley,” Layne said.
Getting early notice of a retirement or resignation helps. For an agriculture teaching job in Wendell, “we knew about that before school got out,” Lowe said. “We jumped on it early and it paid off.”
The Wendell district is looking more closely at how to attract teachers, such as being competitive with salaries, Lowe said. Plus, “the four-day week is a recruitment tool,” although it’s not the reason why the district switched to that schedule.
In Twin Falls, the school district offered a $200 incentive to employees who put in their retirement notice in November or December, instead of waiting until later. Nine employees participated.
School leaders also went to career fairs at Idaho State University and Boise State University to promote its job opportunities and share information about Twin Falls.
On its job applications, though, the district asks if it can share information with other school districts who have job openings.
In Jerome, the district started hiring in March. Since student enrollment is growing, there will be seven additional teachers next year.
The district also went to five job fairs this school year and hired a couple of mid-year college teaching graduates. And it posts job openings on a nationwide job website, teachersteachers.com.
In Wendell, Lowe is noticing more unlicensed job applicants who are interested in teaching. “Years ago, that never happened.”
Last year, the Wendell district hired five teachers on emergency authorizations. Some already had a license, but were changing their content specialty.
School boards declare an “area of need” if they can’t find a certified teacher. It allows them to hire an unlicensed educator. Hires must be approved the Idaho Department of Education.
Unlicensed teachers can take online classes through the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. The nonprofit, established by a U.S. Department of Education grant, helps people who already have a bachelor’s degree and want to change careers.
Students have up to one year to complete the self-paced program. They also must pass tests in classroom pedagogy and content before earning an interim license. Plus, they receive help from a mentor teacher.
Across Idaho, the number of teachers certified through ABCTE is growing, from 276 during the 2013-14 school year to 344 during the 2014-15 school year.
Last school year, Cassia County schools hired for 44 jobs. Of those, about 20 teachers had some sort of alternate certification.
“Sometimes, alternate route situations turn out very well,” Critchfield said. And in some cases, what starts as a short-term solution “ends up being an absolute great fit for a school.”