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Subs, bus drivers and special ed teachers: the latest face of Ohio schools' staffing woes

A line of Cleveland Metropolitan School District school buses parked in Cleveland's Playhouse Square in fall 2022.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
A shortage of substitute bus drivers isn't driven by pay concerns, a transportation consultant said. Changes in the economy mean drivers can be more choosy about jobs that do not provide stable, regular work.

School districts in Ohio aren’t in as big of a crunch to find teachers as they have been in recent years, although many districts are still struggling to find specific kinds of teachers: substitutes, for example, and those that focus on special subjects like math or gym.

The broader problem remains, however: fewer people are entering into the field of education, while some are leaving the profession entirely, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, Ohio’s largest teachers union.

Those problems at their core are due to multiple factors: pay, the lingering effects of the pandemic on struggling students, political attacks and a general feeling from teachers that support is lacking, whether from the public or from their administrators, he said.

“We saw a positive step forward in the state budget, where the legislature increases the minimum teacher salary from around $30,000 to $35,000 a year,” DiMauro said. “That's a step in the right direction. But it still leaves a significant pay gap when you're looking at the difference between people going into education and people with similar levels of education going into other professions.”

The Garfield Heights City School District said it's been "aggressively" recruiting since over the summer after dozens of teachers left. Teachers union members at the time cited concerns with safety and high workloads.

The district has filled 100% of its core positions filled and about 80% of support staff openings, according to a statement.

“The GHCS employee recruitment efforts have positively trended in the right direction in these last few weeks, and the district is confident that this recent momentum will continue until all needs are completely met," the district said.

In the Cleveland Metropolitan School District staffing levels have improved compared to last year but the district is still short about 100 teachers (out of 3,500), said Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union at CMSD.

“We still have some art, music and PE (physical education) openings,” she said last week. “Also high school math and science and special ed, which are high need areas everywhere.”

The pandemic caused additional challenges for teachers like her, said Amanda Bondi, an intervention specialist at Chardon High School. Intervention specialists focus on educating students with disabilities or otherwise have an IEP or individualized education plan.

“Ever since the pandemic, the mental health and executive functioning needs have increased immensely,” she said. “Students are still recovering from being apart from each other during those times, (where they) were functioning more in a single environment rather than having to function with their peers.”

That means her skills are now in demand. Several other school districts reached out to try to recruit her over the summer, she said. That hasn’t always been the case. Roughly 15 years ago, she had to work her way up — through small private alternative and charter schools — before working at larger public schools where the pay is better.

The teacher shortage has been more acute at charter schools, said John Zitzner, founder of Breakthrough Schools, a network of charter schools in Cleveland.

“We’ve got a couple of dozen openings right now, which is tough,” he said in an interview last week.

Charter schools, which are public schools in Ohio operated on a nonprofit basis, with free tuition for all, receive less funding than traditional district schools, so they can’t pay teachers as much, he said.

“A teacher can leave us and go to the suburbs and get more money (typically),” Zitzner said.

The state boosted funding for charter schools in the most recent budget, which will help with recruiting, he said. But the impact on teacher salaries won’t be felt immediately.

Districts are also still struggling to find enough bus drivers to staff routes, said Doug Palmer, senior transportation consultant for the Ohio School Boards Association, which has led to the consolidation of some routes.

A lack of substitute drivers is also a challenge, he said. But it's not the pay that makes it difficult to find workers. There's now more competition for those drivers who must meet certain state requirements and are less interested in a position that does not provide stable, regular work.

“We don't have any trouble finding someone to deliver packages to our homes now. I mean, CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Kroger's, they all offer home delivery,” he said. “That's something that we didn't have before.”

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.