Shallow applicant pools put squeeze on school staffing

·4 min read

Jun. 11—Area schools are struggling to fill job openings from a shrinking pool of eligible candidates.

Though students and staff are heading into summer break, schools are tasked with ensuring an adequate complement of teachers, administrators and custodial workers before the fall. And according to Jeremy Rathbun, assistant superintendent of the Monadnock Regional School District, this hasn't been easy.

"The issue isn't that people are leaving," Rathbun said. "It's that people aren't coming in."

As of Thursday, he said, there were 34 job openings in the district, which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, and serves around 1,500 students. Thirteen of those slots were teaching positions, with about half at the high school in Swanzey Center. Rathbun said this is comparable to in years past.

"Compared to last year we're at the same spot," he said.

What's unusual is the types of positions that are proving difficult to fill.

Since 2021, one of the hardest positions for Monadnock to fill is elementary-school teachers, which Rathbun said is unprecedented for the district.

"It's unheard of to not have classroom-teacher candidates for elementary schools," he said. "We used to have more than enough to go around, and now we're lucky to get a few. And maybe they're out of state or they're not certified."

Hiring high-school teachers is also tough because many of those positions require specific credentials, he said. And since many courses at the high-school level are required by the state, it's especially important to fill those openings, he noted.

He added that the district can hire candidates without full certification through a three-year N.H. Site-Based Learning Plan. This enables people with a statement of eligibility — meaning they possess the minimum requirements to be hired — to be employed while pursuing full licensure to be an educator in a specific area of study.

"They come in with context and knowledge, and we take them in and show them how to be teachers," he said.

Monadnock isn't the only district facing these challenges.

Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which serves about 4,200 students from Keene and several other districts, said the SAU is also facing a smaller number of applicants.

"What's unusual is our job pools aren't as deep as they were before the pandemic," Malay said.

He added that this issue is exacerbated by more than 20 people retiring from the SAU this year.

"In the seven years I've been here, that's double what I've seen most years," Malay said.

Still, as in Monadnock, he said the current number of open positions is reflective of years past, and Director of Human Resources Nancy Deutsch agreed it's "not out of the ballpark." Neither had exact numbers for job openings in previous years.

According to SAU 29's website, as of Friday, there were 144 available positions, nine of them for elementary-level teachers, three for middle-school teachers and 13 for teachers at Keene High. There were 63 vacancies for the Keene School District alone, Deutsch said.

Like Malay, she said the number of retirees is swelling those figures.

And although the high retiree tally could be in part because of the pandemic, she said it's more likely because of their ages.

Teacher shortages are occurring on a national scale. A recent report from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) shows that education degrees peaked at nearly 200,000 in the 1970s, but fewer than 90,000 were awarded in 2019, while the number of degrees in other fields continues to rise. AACTE suggests one reason could be expanded employment opportunities for women.

To help meet their staffing needs, local schools are turning to social media.

SAU 29 made a LinkedIn profile this year, and has been posting there and on Facebook, with videos of its principals and other administrators advertising what their schools have to offer candidates.

"We have them doing interviews highlighting why it's special to work at their schools," Deutsch said. "We want to give applicants insight into the school and take advantage of social media."

Monadnock has been advertising positions via Facebook, in newspapers, and even on Monadnock Radio Group shows, according to Rathbun.

"Our absolute last resort is canceling or changing classes," he said. "Because we want to ensure that our students have everything they need and deserve."

An optimist by nature, Rathbun said he believes the job pools will fill up at some point in the future, although he's unsure when.

"Everything is a little upside down right now," he said. "Anytime something like this happens, schools get creative. And that's what we do."

Hunter Oberst can be reached at 355-8546, or hoberst@keenesentinel.com.