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Increases in resignations are adding to the already challenging staff shortage in St. Louis-area schools

Confluence Academies’ South City Academy
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The sun sets on the Confluence Academies’ South City Academy on Tuesday in Dutchtown.

Many schools across the St. Louis area have more open positions than normal for this time of year, after the pandemic made an already challenging teacher shortage even worse.

Some districts have seen increases in resignations and retirements this year, and, across the board, staff positions like custodians and food service employees are in high demand. That makes for tighter competition among districts still trying to hire teachers and other staff.

Since the 2019-20 school year, the Fort Zumwalt School District has seen resignations double. The district currently has about 25 open teacher positions, which is more than usual for this late in the summer. Administrators expect to fill those spots in the coming weeks, but the outlook isn’t as positive for paraprofessionals and custodians, said Bernard Dubray, who has been Fort Zumwalt’s superintendent for 37 years and is the longest-serving superintendent in Missouri.

“It definitely has been more of a challenging year for us,” DuBray said. “Particularly for support staff, I've never seen anything like it.”

Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education collects data on trends in teaching staff for the previous year each fall, which means it will be more than a year before the data reflects this upcoming school year. To get an early understanding of the issue, St. Louis Public Radio spoke with district leaders and hiring managers from almost a dozen school districts and charter schools, in both Missouri and Illinois.

Overall, education leaders said there was only a slight increase in departures this year, but the problem is worse than that suggests because of the existing teacher shortage. Almost half of Missouri teachers said they often consider leaving the profession in a Missouri State Teachers Association survey last year, citing student behavior and substitute teacher shortages as main sources of stress.

Pay is the top reason teachers in Missouri leave the profession, a 2019 survey found. Missouri’s teachers have some of the lowest salaries in the nation, according to the National Education Association.

Many districts are increasing pay and working to highlight what is unique about their schools to stand out in a tight labor market.

The Riverview Gardens School District in St. Louis County has more than 100 open teacher positions and more than 80 open support staff roles. That’s similar to last year, said Monica Williams, assistant superintendent of human resources.

Statewide in recent years, more than a third of new hires in schools in Missouri came from another district. Williams said Riverview Gardens has been affected by competition from neighboring school systems.

“We have had a lot of teachers make a decision to move on to other school districts,” Williams said.

To be more competitive, Riverview Gardens just announced a $15-an-hour minimum wage for support staff like custodians and food service workers. It also increased pay for teachers multiple times in recent months; in April it increased pay by 5% and at the end of June, it moved most employees up in its salary schedule, which resulted in about another 3% increase on average.

Competition is also a problem for Confluence Academies, a network of charter schools. At this point in the summer, schools with open positions are trying to hire from the same dwindling pool of teachers, said Dion Edwards, director of human resources.

Reporter Kate Grumke talks about this story on 'St. Louis on the Air'

“School systems have either solidified their staffing needs or they're still looking as well, and there's just not much out there,” Edwards said. “And so you have to be creative in what you're going to do to educate kids in the fall.”

Almost 15% of teaching staff is not returning to Confluence Academies this year, which is only slightly higher than in previous years. That surprised Edwards.

“From what you read around hiring or staffing in education, I was anticipating a bigger spike,” Edwards said. Confluence Academies is conducting culture surveys and looking at salaries and benefits to identify strategies to achieve long-term teacher retention. Edwards also wants to see more outreach to educators who might not know much about charter schools.

Throughout the region, districts said the same types of teachers are difficult to find — high school science and math teachers, foreign language teachers and special education teachers.

Not all districts report difficulties. With about 10 teacher openings, the Parkway School District in St. Louis County is on track with previous years, said Michael Baugus, chief human resources officer.

“We're blessed at the moment to still be a destination district,” Baugus said.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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