Schools in New Richmond and River Falls are facing concerning shortages in substitute teacher and paraprofessional fill rates, resulting in upping compensation and last-resort decisions to send a guidance counselor or even a principal into a classroom.

Hudson School District released a written statement which said it has been able to maintain an adequate pool of substitutes over the years, but still struggles on some days to find classroom coverage.

The shortages are hard to quantify, according to Patrick Olson, New Richmond school district's superintendent.

David Bell, River Falls school district director of human resources said River Falls has seen less than a 100% fill rate and to a concerning level. Bell has been with the school district for three years and has seen substitute shortages each year.

“The fill rate has not been improving, it’s getting worse,” Bell said.

The issue is a circular one, Olson said, as districts are simultaneously seeing fewer teaching candidates along with the rest of the country.

“This trend is concerning as secondary institutions are also seeing decreasing numbers in terms of individuals entering and graduating from the education field which in turn perpetuates the substitute teacher and paraprofessional educator shortage,” Olson said.

In Wisconsin, individuals entering a teacher certification program has steadily dropped since the 2008-2009 academic year according to Title II Higher Education Act.

A decade ago, 12,323 people enrolled in a teacher preparation program while 2016-2017 data reveals almost half the number of enrollees at 7,878.

Only 2,979 passed a program in 2016-2017.

The number of available graduates willing to substitute is not the only factor impacting substitute fill rates.

Because a substitute’s schedule can be unpredictable, it is harder to attract eligible people.

“Some of the challenges to maintaining an adequate pool of substitute teachers is the general health of the economy. When there is low unemployment, there are less people in need of part-time work. Additionally, the Department of Public Instruction has added requirements to the substitute and paraprofessional licensing that can take up to 6-8 weeks to complete,” a statement from Hudson School District reads.

Olson said rehiring retired teachers would help ameliorate the substitute teacher shortage, but change in 2013 legislation prohibited public employees from receiving a new salary and collecting their pensions.

A provision which would have allowed districts to rehire retired teachers and receive their pensions was included in Gov. Tony Evers’ 2019-2021 biennial budget proposal, but was cut in the early stages by the Joint Committee on Finance.

While districts manage to cope with the lack of substitutes, measures are taken each school day to fill classrooms and minimize educational impacts, Olson said.

Most often, a teacher on a lunch break or with a free preparation period will lead the classroom.

Hudson, New Richmond and River Falls school districts follow the practice of filling classrooms with available teachers first, then resorting to guidance counselors or even principals.

River Falls and New Richmond school districts have increased substitute pay this year. River Falls pays $115 each day for teaching while New Richmond pays $125 per day.

Hudson did not increase pay, according to Hudson school district assistant director of human resources Holly Butler.

Districts continually have discussions to maintain recruiting efforts focused on marketing tactics, adding attractive benefits such as free lunches and compensation changes.

River Falls partnered with a third-party temporary hire agency called Teachers On Call during the 2018-2019 school year to test the ability to overcome substitute filling challenges.

Bell said the agency partnership was established to assist in allowing retirees to work in the district, increase the ability to market to substitute and help in the filling process.

Teachers On Call provides substitute professionals to over 150 districts in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to their company website.

Bell said River Falls needs most substitutes in middle and high school positions. New Richmond said it often struggle finding substitutes on Mondays and Fridays and in warmer weather months.

Those interested in learning about the steps to become a licensed substitute may contact a school district with questions.