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District willing to be flexible to address staffing

The Warren County School District knew there was a teacher shortage coming.

But, no one was predicting a multi-year pandemic that would result in worker shortages across just about every industry.

On Monday, the personnel committee of the school board looked into some problems and some possible avenues for finding solutions.

The district doesn’t have enough people with teaching certificates in the proper fields to fill all the needed positions.

“We know that a lot of this is not the fault of the district,” board member Mary Passinger said. “It’s the fault of COVID.”

Still, “if we lose these teachers, there are no teachers to replace them,” Passinger said.

The district is allowed to place people with bachelor’s degrees in classrooms on an emergency basis through emergency certification. Those individuals essentially take over positions as long-term substitutes, according to Director of Administrative Support Services Gary Weber.

He said the district will put a teacher in a classroom that is not in their area of certification first, before looking for someone to place with an emergency certification.

“We’ve kept that as a minimum,” Weber said. “This year it’s much higher.”

“I’m very concerned about the emergency certs that we’re using,” Passinger said. “I think we need to be very careful about our staff in all forms.”

“Right now we have numerous people… who can do an awesome job,” she said. “But it’s not true that anyone can teach.”

“We emergency cert 15 people this year. Next year we’re low again… we have to emergency cert another 10,” Passinger said. “I think it’s awesome that they are willing to come into a classroom without that education background. I want to keep an eye on it so it doesn’t snowball out of control.”

Emergency certifications don’t have to be a bad thing, according to board president Donna Zariczny.

“I understand your concerns, Mary, and I hear you as a former teacher,” Zariczny said. “Some of the best experiences I’ve had in a classroom are because someone who had experience in a real industry converted and came into a classroom.”

“I wouldn’t want people… thinking WCSD isn’t the right place for them,” she said.

Zariczny suggested that Superintendent Stewart post another video regarding the positions the district is looking to fill.

Staffing shortfalls is not unique to the district.

“Everybody’s in the same boat,” Superintendent Amy Stewart said. “It’s affecting us just like it’s affecting a good portion of the businesses out there.”

It’s not just the classroom teachers.

“We had seven nurses out last week,” Stewart said. “That’s a very big deal. I can’t ask another person to be a nurse… that’s a certificated position.”

Bus drivers are getting to similar levels. “We’re getting to a point where, if we have one person out, we’re having to consolidate routes,” Stewart said.

In a time when some people are forced to stay away from work for two weeks, finding people to fill in has been problematic to impossible.

“We can’t get substitutes in there,” Stewart said. “They’re not to be had.”

The district is looking for answers to its staffing problems and encouraging creativity.

“We are aware of the problems,” Passinger said. “We just don’t necessarily know how to fix those problems.”

“We were asked for ideas to send back to the governor,” Stewart said.

There were some solutions in place in other locations that were brought up. Stewart said the Conneaut School District is running a two-hour delay schedule to help alleviate a bus driver shortage.

In Philadelphia, “they are already leveraging the National Guard,” toward a driver shortage, she said.

“Maybe the bus problem is at a serious enough level now, maybe we should send a letter to the governor,” board member Arthur Stewart said.

The administration is encouraging board members to pass along creative options just like the state is asking districts.

“If anything occurs to you as a board member, what could we ask for a waiver for that might give us some relief, please don’t hesitate to toss those ideas our way,” Superintendent Stewart said.

Arthur Stewart brought up a old state rule that allowed for some creative solutions to problems… “a waiver program that existed in Pennsylvania by statute about 20 years ago allowed you to submit ideas to the Department of Ed…” and “provided extraordinary flexibility for districts.”

“We used it for purchasing in unique ways,” he said. The district was able to lock in natural gas prices on long-term contracts to help avoid dramatic changes.

He said the district should be able to quickly find that document and forward it to the legislature for a look. “If people really want to help us out… it can get passed very, very shortly.”

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