Schools hope to overcome staff shortages with millions in wage, bonus incentives

Districts plan on spending millions of dollars in state and federal funds to pay teachers higher salaries and offer hiring and retention bonuses to fully staff schools by Sept. 1.

Nearly all of Oregon’s 219 school districts and education service districts have applied for a portion of $100 million allocated by the state Legislature this year for staff bonuses. Districts also have had access to $1.7 billion in federal Covid relief money since 2020, of which Oregon has more than $1 billion left to spend. Districts are allowed to use this money to maintain, retain and recruit staff.

Across the state, district superintendents say they continue to face teacher shortages for certain grades and subjects, including special education and English language teachers, along with shortages of administrators, bus drivers, custodians, and auxiliary staff.

A lack of teachers and other staff has meant that a growing number of students are taught by substitute teachers and emergency teachers after months of online learning during the pandemic. It has meant larger class sizes for some students andteachers forced to teach during planning periods and to work more hours.

The Capital Chronicle reached out to 100 superintendents across the state and heard back from more than one-third. A majority had most of the staff they needed but were still hiring in the runup to the first day of school, just two weeks away. 

To fill gaps, the Siuslaw School District in Florence on the Oregon coast plans to ask a few retired teachers to help manage special education programs at the 400-student high school, Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak said in an email. Right now the school only has one special education teacher. Lane County also lacks bus drivers. Grzeskowiak said Siuslaw will try to attract them by matching hiring bonuses offered to drivers from private companies or in nearby school districts.

Staff needed in urban, rural areas

Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district by enrollment, currently has 226 open teaching and classified school staff positions. Among them are openings for four school psychologists, 12 counselors and 29 special education teachers. 

“We will fill any vacancies at the beginning of the school year with substitutes and other contingencies, if necessary,” said Sydney Kelly of the district’s media relations department. 

Beaverton Public Schools, the state’s third largest district by enrollment, also needs staff. It is looking for more counselors, special education teachers, music, math and science teachers, Susan Rodriguez, chief human resources officer, said. 

Rural districts need staff as well.

The Umatilla School District has long sought special education teachers. 

“They’re so hard to find so we are always on the lookout,” Superintendent Heidi Sipe said.

In Hermiston, a push last school year to get substitute teachers and classified staff licensed to work full-time in classrooms has left the district with shortages of substitutes and classified staff, like paraprofessionals who work with students with disabilities and teahing assistants.

Superintendent Tricia Mooney said emergency teacher and substitute teacher licenses will continue to be helpful but she said they’re a “Band-Aid.” 

“We need to be thinking further down the road, too, about how we’re going to grow our own teachers,” Mooney said.

Last year teacher burnout led to a greater strain on staffing.

“We did have teachers resign mid-year, and we haven’t really had that in the past,” Mooney said. “The fallout of that we’re gonna feel for several years to come.”

Her district is working with Western Governors University, a private online four-year college in Utah, to offer tuition reimbursement for non-certified staff who complete a teacher degree program and teach in Hermiston schools. 

Bonuses, raises offered

The Parkrose School District in Portland will offer all returning teachers from last year a $1,000 bonus in November, Superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao said. 

Tillamook used federal Covid relief dollars last school year to provide teachers with one-time $3,500 appreciation stipends. It gave classified staff 10% raises last year and will add another 7.5% this year. Full-time teachers who return this year will receive another $1,000 bonus.

In Beaverton, teachers who return this year will get a $1,000 bonus. Dual language teachers will be eligible for an additional $2,000 in bonuses as will psychologists and speech therapists. Licensed staff with Spanish proficiency can get an extra $1,200 annually. 

To combat bus driver shortages, Beaverton schools will pay $30 an hour for drivers, the highest rate in Washington County.

In North Bend, which is south of Florence, teachers who work at schools outside city limits could get stipends for gas, according to Superintendent Kevin Bogatin. 

“We are hoping to provide some relief that will also help in staff recruitment,” he said. 

Sipe in Umatilla said last year her teachers and classified staff wanted money invested in staff, rather than bonuses, so she used Covid relief money to pay for more full-time substitute teachers and mental health professionals. The substitutes gave each teacher in the district a couple days of extra support, she said. Sipe also used the money to give each teacher one paid hour per month to collaborate with and mentor one another.

This year, the district will use federal dollars to double tuition reimbursements for school staff to become teachers in Umatilla. The district has up to $20,000 to offer employees for the 2022-23 school year, Sipe said. 

Statewide group seeks long-term solutions 

Since December of 2021, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, has convened a working group that’s been studying  Oregon’s teacher shortages and potential solutions. The group includes teachers; representatives from the Oregon Department of Education; the state’s largest teachers union, the Oregon School Boards Association; the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators; and several colleges and universities around the state.

The group is collecting data on teacher attrition. It last met in July to discuss findings, and Dembrow said one big one is an especially high turnover in administrators.

“Teachers need to be supported, and that support needs to be stable,” he said.

Short term, besides hiring and retention bonuses, an idea the group has pushed is to have Oregon join a national compact on educator licensing, allowing teachers from out of state to work in Oregon without having to get relicensed. 

Long term, Dembrow said the group needs to address working conditions in schools and make the job appeal to  new cohort of teachers.

“I’m reminded of what really important work teachers do and how deeply satisfying that work can be under the right conditions. If we can make those conditions right, we can attract more young and mid-career people into the profession,” Dembrow said.

Many of the newer teachers the working group has talked with are saying they need dedicated time and resources to receive mentorship and training. 

“What’s clear is, if you’re not giving new teachers – whether they’re coming straight out of education programs or if they are sort of commissioned to deal with an emergency – the support they need in their first years, they won’t stay. It’s becoming even clearer,” he said. 

The group will reconvene in September to discuss policy options that can be proposed during the next legislative session in 2023. 

“We owe it to teachers to not come up with flashy proposals that look good and sound good to our constituents but to ask ourselves: do they have staying power? Are they well thought out?” Dembrow said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.