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Substitute teacher shortage lessens for some Iowa school districts

Katie Peikes
IPR File
The Sioux City Community School District has seen an improvement in its ability to staff substitute teachers.

Substitute teachers aren’t as hard to come by as they were last year, according to some school districts across the state.

Some districts are seeing improvement in their ability to staff substitute teaching positions this school year. Higher pay rates and improved benefits have helped districts fill in some of the gaps, according to recruitment officials from small and large districts.

This time last year, school board meetings at Sioux City Community School District were full of tense discussion on how to improve its substitute fill rate – or the percentage of requests for substitute teachers that are able to be filled.

For many months, the district was only able to fulfill around 70 percent of requests. There was debate on whether the district should bring inan outside staffing agency to help improve its numbers.

Rather, board memberssettled on raising rates by at least $25 a day and providing a $100 recruitment stipend. Human resources director Jen Gomez said these efforts have helped a lot. The district’s fill rate has risen to 87 percent.

“Staff aren't having to help fill in during their planning time or during their duty time. So, when that fill rate is higher, our existing staff is less stretched,” Gomez said.

Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) is also touting a similar improvement. Its fill rate rose by 18 percent over the year, moving from 46 percent to 64 percent.

Casey Brown, supervisor of the Substitute Center at DMPS, said the district has been investing more time in providing paid professional development opportunities for substitute staff, in addition to increased pay. Brown said frequent job fairs and offering more permanent substitute roles have both played a part in elevating their numbers.

The Edmund Elementary school sign reads "Be Safe."
Michael Leland
IPR file
Des Moines Public Schools' substitute fill rate increased by around 18 percent.

“We have done a lot this year to increase seeing them and for them to connect with each other and with us,” Brown said.

Even smaller districts have seen some improvements. Mason City School District saw a 15percent increase. Human resources director Tom Drzycimski said their improved fill rate has a lot to do with expanded training opportunities.

The district has received support from the local community college, Northern Iowa Area Community College. It has increased its offerings of substitute authorizations classes, one of the requirements to becoming a substitute teacher in Iowa.

“Staff aren't having to help fill in during their planning time or during their duty time. So, when that fill rate is higher, our existing staff is less stretched."
Jen Gomez, HR director at SCCSD

“We've had a number of people that have taken advantage of those, some of them are our own paraprofessionals,” Drzycimski said.

Despite the progress, Drzycimski said the district is still in need of more substitute staff. He said board members will be continuing to evaluate substitute staff pay to remain competitive with nearby districts.

“The changes that we've made have been positive, but if we get into the spring and our fill rate decreases, it may be something that we have to look at again,” he said.

Substitute shortages across the state are far from eliminated. Just this month, Pocahontas Area Community School District in northwest Iowadismissed from school early due to a lack of available substitute teachers.

Even though the substitute deficit has subsided slightly for some districts, many are still reporting a need for more general teaching positions and support staff. The Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) has been sounding the alarmand pushing for greater investment in Iowa’s public education system.

The Iowa Department of Education has classified21 different education positions in a shortage this school year, including social studies, art and early childhood education.

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.