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Sioux City district looks to staffing firm to help stem substitute teacher shortage

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Perla Alarcon-Flory ESS.jpg

Sioux City School Board President Perla Alarcon-Flory speaking with the media regarding the potential contract with ESS to address the substitute teacher shortage on Friday.

SIOUX CITY – Superintendent Paul Gausman says the shortage of substitute teachers in the Sioux City school district has risen to a "crisis" level. 

In a normal year, the district filled 80 percent to 90 percent of teacher absences with substitutes, Gausman said. 

Now, administrators can only find enough substitutes to fill 70 to 80 percent of the absences.

“That’s just not good enough,” Gausman said Friday. “Our staff is overworked.”

To close that gap, the district would need to increase its roster of substitutes by more than 100, he said.

Paul Gausman

Gausman

To help accomplish that daunting task, the district, for the first time, plans to partner with an outside employment firm that specializes in recruiting, hiring and training substitute teachers and para-educators.

The school board is scheduled Monday to vote on a proposed contract with ESS, a K-12 staffing and management solution company based in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The board has held various public meetings, work sessions and Zoom calls to discuss the contract with ESS and how the company will provide services. 

In a district-wide survey, 98 percent of teachers and 89 percent of para-educators said they have been directly impacted or have seen the impact of a substitute shortage.

A majority of those surveyed - 78 percent of para-educators and 90 percent of teachers - said they would support a partnership with a private firm like ESS.

What ESS would offer

ESS specializes in placing staff in various positions throughout K-12 districts and has worked with more than 800 districts in 30 states. This would be the first time the company has operated in Iowa though.

Under the proposed three-year contract with the Sioux City district, ESS would assume all advertising and recruiting for new substitutes, as well as human resources functions of managing the staff.

No substitutes would be brought in from outside Siouxland, Gausman said.

School board president Perla Alarcon-Flory said ESS will target those who may have considered substituting in the past, or work in a different field such as an engineer or accountant, and want extra income.

In Iowa, a substitute teacher must have one of the following: hold an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or 60 semester hours of credit in, or outside the U.S., or hold a para-educator certificate. They also must complete the substitute authorization course.

Jen Gomez ESS.jpg

Sioux City Community School District Human Resources Director Jen Gomez speaks with the local media regarding the proposed contract with ESS to address the substitute teacher shortage Friday.

Different from what is currently offered from the district, the substitutes would receive additional in-person 4- to 5-hour training covering topics such as classroom management, student and staff safety, creative instructional strategies, district and school policies, and more, according to an ESS presentation.

Alarcon-Flory noted a private firm like ESS is allowed to make expenditures that help substitutes feel happy and special that would not be allowed by governmental entities like the school district, Alarcon-Flory said.

“Rewards and prizes and things like that,” she said.

Why ESS?

School board member Dan Greenwell has asked why the district can not continue to solve the staffing shortage itself, rather than outsource the problem to another entity. 

Greenwell, a businessman, said he believes the district has not attempted additional recruitment methods, such as raising pay rates for substitutes.

Jen Gomez, the district's director of human resources, said the district recruits through word-of-mouth, through its own website, the Indeed job posting platform and social media.

Gomez said ESS will be able to dedicate the time and attention needed to find more substitutes.

“We essentially don’t have the manpower to do that at this time,” she said. “Partnering with a company that’s what they do for their business. I think it is a great opportunity to address the shortage.”

Wendy Beam, senior vice president of operations for ESS, said the company does grassroots recruiting within the community by attending events, hosting booths and advertising.

Greenwell has been outspoken throughout the ESS contract process. During the Nov. 8 school board meeting, he presented a marked-up version of the contract; a contract that he said was “terrible.”

Some of his concerns included the lack of performance metrics, the inclusion of an advanced payment for the second year, lack of clarity regarding  various parts of the contract and no specific at-will termination policy.

Since the meeting, Greenwell said the concerns he had with the contract have been addressed. There has also been added language that the district will not be charged if administration or other district staff substitutes in a class.

ESS will be paid a 29 percent overhead cost to offset benefits taxes, administrative work and other “soft costs.” The number of positions they fill will determine how much they are paid, Gomez said.

“Essentially we’re not spending more than what we normally would be spending on substitutes,” she said.

An aspect of the contract multiple board members requested is a contract termination policy. If ESS is not fulfilling what was promised, or the board felt it wasn’t working, the board wanted a way to back out of the contract with no penalty.

Substitute pay

The substitutes will be paid through ESS, and would have access to benefits such as medical insurance and 401k, something the district does not offer to part-time substitutes.

Sioux City currently pays substitutes on a three-tier rate. If a substitute works between 1 and 20 days, they receive $115 a day; if they work 21 to 50 days, they receive $134 a day; and if they work 51 days or more, they receive $180 a day. Additionally, if a teacher substituted for 75 days the previous year, they start at the second pay tier.

Sioux City has one of the lowest pay of 14 neighboring school districts. The substitute pay at all of the other metro schools -- Dakota Valley, Sergeant Bluff-Luton and South Sioux City – surpass Sioux City's rates, according to data presented to the district. 

Sergeant Bluff-Luton, for example, pays $140 per day for substitute teachers who work 1 to 20 days.

This year, Alarcon-Flory noted the Sioux City district raised the pay by $5 a day. Every time the district raises wages, she said other districts in the area also raise wages.

Greenwell believes Sioux City's rate should be the highest in the area.

Under the proposed contract, if the school board decided to raise the substitute pay rates within the next 18 months, ESS would not receive additional fees.

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