Staffing shortages plague Brainerd area schools
Several school districts across the Brainerd lakes area report shortages of teachers, paraprofessionals and other support staff.
BRAINERD — Nearly nine out of 10 schools in Minnesota are experiencing a shortage of teachers, according to a recent report from the Minnesota Professional Licensing and Standards Board.
Districts around the Brainerd lakes area are no exception, and it’s not just teachers they’re looking for.
From classroom teachers to special education instructors to food service workers and custodians, many districts are struggling to fill vacancies.
“It’s extremely concerning,” Crosby-Ironton Superintendent Jamie Skjeveland said. “And the teacher shortage is just part of a much larger workforce shortage in general.”
Skjeveland’s district had 12 paraprofessional positions unfilled when the school year began and was not fully staffed in that department until January.
That predicament at Crosby-Ironton is just one of several area school districts are facing this year. The most common need in the lakes area seems to be special education teachers, with Skjeveland and administrators in Brainerd, Aitkin and Little Falls reporting a struggle to fill those positions.
The lack of applicants for those positions means teachers who are not licensed in special education are having to take on those roles.
“But we’ve been relatively good at making sure that we have all the appropriate teachers on staff by the fall,” said Angie Bennett, human resources director at Brainerd Public Schools. “Sometimes we have to look at alternate licensure options in hard to fill positions such as special education.”
Essentially, districts are hiring licensed teachers, but they might not be specifically licensed in the field they now have to teach.
“We are fortunate that we have good people step in and teach out of their comfort zone,” Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter said. “... If we wouldn’t have that then we’d be cutting sections and increasing class sizes and things like that. We haven’t had to do that.”
Jen Johnson, director of special education at the Paul Bunyan Education Cooperative, said she has been seeing the shortage of teachers coming into the field for the past five years or so. The cooperative works with special education teachers in Aitkin, Brainerd, Crosby-Ironton Crosslake, Pillager, Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus.
It’s extremely concerning and the teacher shortage is just part of a much larger workforce shortage in general.
“I do not know why people are choosing not to go into education anymore,” Johnson said. “I could guess what the reasons are but we are approaching it by providing intense services to the adults — so providing professional learning and coaching and support to the teachers who are coming into the field.”
Johnson said she also likes to connect with colleges that offer education degrees throughout the state to give input on what kinds of classes are needed and the skills students should have when they graduate.
Beyond special ed
Substitute staffing shortages across the board are the biggest issue in Pequot Lakes, according to Superintendent Kurt Stumpf. Stifter reported that as in issue last year in Aitkin — as he, himself had to sub at times — but the district has not run into as many problems in that area this year.
Qualified career and technical education teachers, however, are another story in Aitkin.
“The trades industry is booming,” Stifter said. “... Every construction area and every trade — whether it’s welding or building or any of that, they’re looking for workers, and sometimes they can make more in the actual profession than they can working as a teacher.”
Superintendent Greg Johnson reported seeing that same issue at Little Falls Community Schools, as well as difficulties filling roles related to mental health, like counselors and social workers.
Support staff roles are increasingly difficult to fill in many districts, too. Brainerd officials continue to consolidate bus routes and run fewer routes than needed due to a shortage of drivers , which is a problem Stifter reported in Aitkin as well.
A shortage of custodians and food service workers add to the staffing woes for many districts.
In Brainerd, though — aside from special education and English as a second language instructors — Bennett said the school district has been fortunate with its staffing levels this year. In an effort to boost staff morale amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Brainerd officials instituted retention methods like longevity stipends, stipends for substitute teachers and more staff work days to give teachers an opportunity to catch up and work and participate in professional development endeavors.
“I think the move to more differentiated professional development is going to be key because everyone’s kind of in a different stage of their career,” Bennett said. “Because when you’re new to due process, they’re going to have different questions than somebody who maybe is changing from working with LD (learning disabilities) students to EBD (emotional behavioral disorder) students. So what does that switch look like, and how can we support that transition?”
Brainerd’s new teacher mentorship program has proved to be helpful as well, Bennett said, as those new to the profession can have a designated person to bounce ideas off and act as additional support.
Professional learning communities are another tool Brainerd uses, bringing teachers together to discuss certain issues.
“So I think there is a lot of systematic support built in,” Bennett said. “It’s just … the requirements of our teachers continues to increase, and it’s difficult to mitigate, which is why we’ve created more space in our calendar to really support that professional development in the actual work times embedded in the schedule.”
Bennett said there also seems to be a trend of teachers from the metro area moving up north in recent years and making seasonal residences permanent, and that phenomenon has helped bolster the workforce in Brainerd.
Skjeveland said he sees that trend in the Crosby area as well, with experienced teachers wanting to move up to their cabins. While less prominent in Aitkin, Stifter said his district has found some substitute teachers that way.
Remedying the situation
While no administrators claimed to have the magic solution to fix their predicaments, a common theme among districts is posting job openings earlier and earlier in the year.
Back when he started as a principal, Stifter said the typical practice was to post jobs for the coming school year by May 1. But this year, he’s already had vacancies posted for about three weeks.
In Brainerd, Bennett said the goal is post all openings around March 1.
No matter how early the jobs are posted, though, the struggle to get enough applicants abounds. Skjeveland said it’s not uncommon to get zero to two applicants for open positions now, whereas a couple decades ago, when he was a principal, there would be 250 candidates lined up for a job.
With the new challenges, Greg Johnson said a lot of brainstorming sessions go on at Little Falls, but it’s going to take some out-of-the-box ideas coming from the state level to really curb the issue, as he said state funding makes up about 70% of his district’s budget.
“When they’re serious about making changes, they have the financial wherewithal to be able to do that more so than individual school districts can,” he said.
In the meantime, it’s the small things that administrators are trying to keep their staff happy. Wellness activities throughout the year, staff appreciation days and the occasional breakfast from parent groups are all efforts to boost morale in Crosby-Ironton.
“Those little acts of kindness throughout the year goes a long way of contributing to job satisfaction,” Skjeveland said.
But the educational struggles of the past few years persist.
“Education is a very rewarding profession, but it’s been a challenging four or five years,” Greg Johnson said. “And I think people see that. I think they recognize that the profession is different than what it used to be, and we’re seeing fewer people go into it.”
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .