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Minnesota, North Dakota educators unions shine light on substitute teacher shortage

“We’re not recruiting enough teachers and we’re not retaining them. Since the pandemic began, I think we do have a legitimate teacher shortage,” said the leader of North Dakota's statewide teachers union.

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht and North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta at a joint news conference on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021 at the Courtyard by Marriott.jpg
Education Minnesota President Denise Specht and North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta at a joint news conference on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Moorhead. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
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FARGO — Minnesota and North Dakota educators unions are calling for federal dollars to invest in public school substitute teachers, who were difficult to recruit and retain even before the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the situation.

The North Dakota educators union joined the Minnesota campaign called “At a breaking point: Educating during COVID-19,” because issues cross state borders, said Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United.

Both states' educators unions held a joint news conference Wednesday, Dec. 8, in the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Moorhead, Minnesota, to bring attention to the issue. And on Tuesday, the unions met with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead editorial board to point out that the lack of substitute teachers is putting too much pressure on full-time and retired teachers, who often work as substitutes, to the point where many are walking away from the profession.

“We don’t have enough adults in our schools in all areas, but especially substitutes. The impact is felt by their colleagues who cover for them,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht. “Even before the pandemic there was a teacher shortage and substitute teacher shortage, and COVID has really shone a bright light on it. Retired educators, who tend to be the go-to people for substitute teaching, are not interested in taking those roles at all."

Substitute teacher positions need to be competitive, Archuleta said.

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Currently, a substitute teacher position in Fargo pays $112 per day, in West Fargo the district pays $112 per day, and Moorhead pays $114.25 per day.

Some of the millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid that Minnesota and North Dakota received should be used to help attract and retain substitute teachers, the unions’ presidents said.

Archuleta said the workloads for many teachers are reaching a breaking point partly because of the substitute teacher shortage. Higher salaries for teachers and substitutes are only part of the solution, he said, adding that teacher work satisfaction and the promise of teacher preparation for a different field may be additional solutions.

Jean Sando, a high school English teacher in Moorhead and president of the district's teachers union, agreed, saying that in some schools students are "put into a holding pattern" and some second-graders are at kindergarten levels due to a lack of substitute teachers.

Kristi Rowekamp, an elementary interventionist in Moorhead and the local union vice president, said that because of the need to fill in for teachers, many students aren't getting the interventions that they need to learn properly.

Middle school social studies teacher Jeff Offutt, also the local union member rights chairperson, said teachers used to get phone calls when substitute teachers were needed. Now, they get a daily email showing the need at Horizon Middle School.

In Fargo Public Schools, human resources director Doug Andring said that since the pandemic began, the district has become creative in how it recruits substitute teachers and is scouring local universities.

The district has had difficulty in recruiting substitutes because “some people are still leery of entering the workforce with the pandemic still going on,” Andring said.

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The Fargo School District has used federal dollars to hire 30 long-term substitute teachers, Andring said. A long-term substitute is paid $224.64 per day in Fargo Public Schools.

The West Fargo School District has used federal funds to hire 20 full-time substitute teachers. A long-term substitute in West Fargo is paid $204.38 per day.

Finding substitute teachers is not a funding issue, said Kristin Dehmer, executive director of human resources and operations for Moorhead Area Public Schools. The district is not concerned about retaining substitute teachers, but has seen significantly less applicants, Dehmer said.

Substitute teachers in North Dakota can find jobs relatively easier because they’re not required to have a completed teaching license. In Minnesota, however, potential substitute teachers need a bachelor's degree to get a substitute license, Specht said.

Since Dec. 1, Moorhead Area Public Schools has increased substitute teacher pay and provides free lunches. Substitute paraeducators pay was increased 25 cents to $14.75 per hour , Dehmer said. A long-term substitute teacher makes about $225.21 per day.

Moorhead Area Public Schools is not using federal American Rescue Plan funds to hire more substitute teachers at this time because it “is one time funding and cannot be used for recurrent costs, so we would not use this funding to permanently increase substitute wages. Moorhead has hired permanent subs for each building who report daily to support the shortage,” Dehmer said.

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