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Sioux City School District looking to draw more substitute teachers

SIOUX CITY -- On a single day last fall, nearly 200 Sioux City public school teachers took an excused leave of absence, requiring district administrators to locate dozens of substitutes to cover classes.

Administrators and school board members last month engaged in a wide ranging discussion on the often difficult task of lining up enough substitute teachers. As an added incentive, the leaders discussed whether the district needs to raise the substitute pay scale, which currently ranges from $110 to $130 to $172 per day, depending on the accumulated number of days they substitute.

There is currently a pool of 201 teachers who routinely serve as substitutes in the district, which has around 1,000 full-time teachers. 

Human Resources Department Director Rita Vannatta said the district has spent $5.5 million over the last three years to hire substitutes, with the amount consistently around $1.8 million annually.

School board member David Gleiser said substitutes handle a sometimes difficult task.

"There is a special place in heaven for substitute teachers," he said.

Additionally, other Siouxland districts also sometimes have trouble lining up substitutes. Sergeant Bluff-Luton Superintendent Rod Earleywine said, "it is kind of hit-and-miss. Some days, we are filled."

Earleywine said the district has 31 teachers who form the pool of substitutes for SB-L, with about half of those coming from retired teachers.

Vannatta said the prime reasons regular teachers are gone include sickness for themselves or family members, taking personal vacation days or being out for professional development. Per Iowa code, first-year teachers are given 10 days of sick leave, then the amount goes up in following years.

Over the last three years, Sioux City teachers averaged about 6.5 sick days and nearly three days for professional development.

Vannatta said the average fill rate for teachers with substitutes has been 93.5 percent, meaning 6.5 percent are unfilled. Many days in late August 2018, as the year began, had 100 percent fill rates.

"My personal goal is a 100 percent fill rate," said Vannatta, who manages personnel matters.

The day with the most teacher absences came on Oct. 26, 2018, when 192 were gone for various reasons. The report showed that Friday is the most missed day of the school week, accounting for 24 percent of absences in the district.

Sioux City school officials will hold more discussions on the topic in an upcoming meeting. Superintendent Paul Gausman said it is important that school board members understand the challenge at hand.

The information in Vannatta's report included the substitute teacher pay rate of adjacent school districts, which compete with Sioux City at times. The compensation in nearby districts ranges from $85 to $196 per day.

Some examples include Sergeant Bluff-Luton, where the pay is virtually the same as Sioux City, with $110 for up to 20 days of subbing, $130 for days 21 to 50 and $170 for more than 50 days in a school year.

In South Sioux City, the pay is $115 for up to 25 days of subbing, $135 for days 26 to 50 and $175 for more than 50 days. Le Mars pays $115 per day for substitutes, while Woodbury Central in Moville pays $120 per day, then $156 after a person has worked 10 days in the same position.

Earleywine said SB-L set the pay rate near that of Sioux City, to be competitive. He said there's a more modern way to reach out to possible subs for an opening, through an automated phone system to send out inquiries, plus a mobile phone application way to get responses.

At times when substitutes are not lined up, other full-time teachers in the Sioux City district use an open planning period to cover for an absent teacher, for which they are paid an extra $30. Over the last three years, the annual amount paid to teachers to cover in such classrooms ranged from $52,695 to $83,880.

Additionally, the Sioux City district has an incentive program to promote excellent teacher attendance. That program pays bonuses of $250 for teachers who miss no days in a year, along with $175 for one day gone and $150 for two days maximum.

For 2017-18, 233 teacher received such bonuses, including 39 who missed zero days.

School board member Miyuki Nelson encouraged a look into reasons why teachers need to use sick days, saying a more robust wellness program could help reduce absences.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistated the number of teachers in the Sioux City district.

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Water fluoride controversy playing out in Ida County, Iowa

IDA GROVE, Iowa -- Ida Grove city leaders and residents disagree on whether fluoride should continue to be placed in the city water supply, so residents in the Ida County town seat may be surveyed on the subject.

Ida Grove Councilman Doug Clough on Friday said the fluoride issue at hand may be placed as a survey question on utility bills to gauge where residents stand. Clough said since 1971 city officials have been placing hydrofluorosilicic acid, most recently in liquid drops form, into Ida Grove's water supply to prevent tooth decay.

Christie Van Houten, of Ida Grove, has spoken in council meetings and on a personal Facebook page has shared numerous posts about her opposition to the fluoride.  Van Houten has linked to an online poll with the title, "Stop re-introduction of Synthetic Flouride in Ida County Drinking Water!"

Van Houten urged people to vote on that poll, which contains the snippet, "Water fluoridation is allowing government to mass medicate. This is what doctors can not do to individual patients. Put another way: Would you allow your neighbor to decide what medication you should ingest (even if it’s against your will)?"

Clough said the controversy has been aired on social media and newspaper letters to the editor, as city council members have veered on whether fluoride should be in the water. Ida Grove is a town with 2,142 people.

"Everybody is passionate on both sides," Clough said.

The issue of whether fluoride should be in public water systems comes up periodically in Iowa and nationally. In January, a Hawaii lawmaker introduced legislation that would require the state's major public water suppliers to fluoridate drinking water, as a way to promote better dental health.

Siouxland dentists routinely say brushing, flossing, a twice-a-year check-up and fluoride in water are key elements of cavity prevention.

Clough personally wants the fluoride to be placed in the water, even though he voted against it last summer.

City Water Superintendent Lon Schluter in a July 2018 council meeting said the city equipment used to drip in the liquid form of fluoride needed replacement, and noted that not all area towns add it. The council that day unanimously voted to stop using it, the office of the city clerk confirmed Friday.

Clough said he subsequently educated himself on the topic, and learned the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta doesn't see any health risks associated with fluoride in water systems. Local public health officials, including from Horn Memorial Hospital in Ida Grove, in subsequent meetings urged the council to use fluoride.

Thereafter, the council on a 3-2 vote in November moved back to approve using it. However, fluoride is not currently being placed into the Ida Grove water system, while waiting for the updated equipment to arrive.

"We are in this little hiatus," Clough said.

The topic was last discussed by the council in January, and Clough said there is some sentiment to put the issue to a referendum by residents. He said the Iowa League of Cities has advised such a ballot referendum has never been put before voters statewide.

Clough said that's why the city may put the issue out as a survey on utility bills.