Area school districts keep eyes on various shortages

From staffing to food, area school districts are in a position to possibly experience shortages in several areas.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

The Pine River-Backus School District is out of the weeds but watching the horizon cautiously.

Food Service Director Jilline Blanchard said there have not been any food shortages yet; however, there have been occasions where the district has gotten substitutes for foods she serves to students.

That means they still have plenty of the food on their menu. But when they order pizza, it might not be the exact same pizza they have been using.

"I wouldn't say that I've had a food shortage. But there is definitely concern."

— Pine River-Backus Food Service Director, Jilline Blanchard


"I'll send an order for eight cases of Gilardi pizza and they might not have eight cases of Gilardi pizza," Blanchard said. "They might have four Tony's. They have a new policy where they send the closest match."

Blanchard is aware that some places are having supply chain issues, and she is keeping an eye out for shortages. But the district hasn't been lacking in anything yet.

"I wouldn't say that I've had a food shortage," Blanchard said. "But there is definitely concern."

Blanchard said her suppliers also provide inventory lists, which she watches when she places orders. She said students likely haven't noticed any changes.

Unlike PR-B, the Pequot Lakes School District is seeing plenty of issues on the food service side, with everything from food to paper products.

“We order two times a week from our vendor, and usually get back a list of 15 to 20 items that are out,” Food Service Director Patty Buell said in an email. “Some of them they can substitute and some just go unfilled.”

The district is trying to alleviate the issue somewhat by ordering nearly a month in advance.

“Now, if something does not come in, I have time to look for another product,” Buell said. “I will always be able to feed the kids - a parent never has to worry about that. Whether or not it is exactly what is on the menu is another story.”


"I will always be able to feed the kids - a parent never has to worry about that. Whether or not it is exactly what is on the menu is another story."

— Pequot Lakes Food Service Director Patty Buell

Finding other products creates new problems, however. For example, the state has strict guidelines on what can be served in schools for nutritional purposes, with limits on the amount of calories, trans fat and sodium a child can have per meal.

“We know, for example, how much sodium is in an order of chicken nuggets,” Buell said. “Thus, we plan the rest of the day's menu around that so we stay in the correct guidelines. When those specific chicken nuggets are out and we have to substitute in another brand, we then have to look at all the nutritionals and revamp the whole day's menu.”

There is also the issue of allergens. The district’s usual brand of chicken nuggets, for example, does not contain peanut oil or any other peanut byproducts. If Buell has to look elsewhere, they must adhere to that as well, and at times, this must be done for several products at a time.

Buell said that despite the issues, she and the district are “keeping our heads above water,” but she does not expect the situation to change any time soon.

“Our vendor says it is going to get worse before it gets better,” Buell said. “So we will continue to be proactive with our purchasing.”

Supply chain issues aren't just a local issue. It's an issue that is hitting grocers and stores as well as schools. Many of the other issues faced in the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts are statewide or national issues as well.


In terms of transportation, interim Pequot Lakes Superintendent Kurt Stumpf said the district is doing all right at the moment, with no major staffing shortages to speak of. He did say the district is always on the lookout for substitute drivers for both buses and vans.

Likewise, rising fuel costs have not led to the district altering any programs or activities.

The PR-B School District has had a recurring shortage of bus drivers over the last couple of years. At the beginning of the school year the district was feeling the pinch of that shortage once again.

"We were one driver short for a while because of illness and vacations," said PR-B Superintendent Jonathan Clark. "We were working around that, but I believe we should be getting everyone back."

Drivers have come out of the woodwork to fill open positions and now PR-B has that niche filled once again.

"We have actually been able to get a number of applicants," Clark said. "Now it's just moving them through the process."

The district is still accepting applications to guard against a staffing shortage. In addition, the district might need additional drivers occasionally for athletics and other activities.

"It's probably impacting more of our extracurricular activities to make sure we have transportation to all the games," Clark said.

Bus drivers need behind the wheel experience and a commercial driver's license while van drivers don't need quite so many qualifications.

There are, however, some positions that are short staffed. Support positions are experiencing a shortage this year.

"We have paraprofessional openings we're looking to fill, substitutes, custodial staff, kitchen staff," Clark said. "We've got a lot of creativity making sure our classrooms are covered."

Clark said one of the district's principals has filled in in a classroom on at least one occasion. Some of the positions have not been hit hard; however, Clark said they would like more applicants to be safe.

"We want to make sure that we have an ample supply because right now that shortage can come at a moment's notice," Clark said.

A lingering issue for the Pequot Lakes School District is attracting substitute teachers. Stumpf said at the school board’s Monday, Oct. 18, regular meeting that the district is seeing roughly one-fourth of its substitute roles going unfilled - an improvement from last month but still considerably worse than in past years.

“Our staff is continuously going above and beyond to meet the needs of students and ensure efficient operations,” Stumpf said. “Every day there are unfilled substitute positions, which means that other staff help cover while performing their normal duties. Anyone who is interested in subbing in any position should stop by the district office for more information.”

At the meeting, the board approved an incentive plan that would see substitute teachers earn a $100 bonus for every five days they work in the district for the remainder of the school year, as well as a $50 bonus for staff members who refer a person to be a new substitute teacher in the district after that individual has worked five days in the district.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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