Why schools are struggling to fill positions, from teaching assistants to goalies to coaches
When school starts Tuesday at McKinley Elementary in Beaverton, Kyrsti Sackman will be there.
“I’m a firm believer — if you work in education, you have some kind of passion for your community, the students,” Sackman said. “I have a really big passion for working with neurodiverse people, so working in a school is really something that really fulfills me.”
Sackman is a paraeducator. She works with a small number of students, in a special class for students with disabilities.
She approaches the new year with “nervous excitement”; excited to see students experiencing the school without COVID restrictions, but worried about what staff will be – and won’t be there.
“It’s definitely a very demanding job, especially with all the staff [who are] missing, and then the worry about the submarines… I’m worried about who drives the students to school on Tuesday! Sackman said.
Schools operate with people – teachers and principals, but also bus drivers, guards, teaching assistants and office workers. And schools are heading into the new year facing shortages of classified and non-teaching staff.
Vancouver Public Schools recently reported 120 vacancies for paraeducators, as well as 25 vacancies for school bus drivers and 30 vacancies for nutrition service workers.
In the Reynolds School District, there are 131 openings throughout the district, most of them for classified positions.
At the end of August, Portland Public Schools had 93 paraeducator openings. The president of the union representing these employees said this represents “about 25% of this workforce”.
The hiring page on the Ashland School District website contains a message: “The Ashland School District is facing staffing shortages like we have never seen before. We need your help to fill vacancies in our schools.
As some schools scramble to find solutions to vacancies, the big question is why those jobs aren’t being filled — and what can be done about it. Statewide, unemployment in Oregon remains low and private sector jobs have largely rebounded since the wave of layoffs in March 2020. But the recovery has been slower in education.
Sarah Wofford, president of the Oregon School Employees Association, said the reason was low wages and a lack of benefits.
“When you see that McDonald’s or Panda Express or somewhere can hire you at a higher salary than our educational assistants who are there to help educate our children…you’re not going to stick around for the salary that’s offered,” Wofford said.
Schools struggle to stop workers leaving
The problem facing districts is not just hiring employees, but keeping them, especially when pay for other jobs increases.
According to OSEA “about 3,300 employees” left their classified functions during the three school years before 2021-2022, out of 22,000 positions.
“During the 2021-22 school year, the number of employees who left their jobs increased to more than 5,300,” OSEA said in an email to OPB.
Even between districts, there is competition for the same employees.
“You see people leaving one district to go to another district within 20 miles of each other because they are paid more in a different district than they were after six years in that other one. “Wofford said.
School districts responded to the competition with additional bonuses and incentives for new hires. Reynolds is offering $4,000 for certain positions, including classified positions like educational assistants and caretakers. The district also offers bonuses for other hard-to-fill positions, such as school psychologists and counselors.
With House Bill 4030, school districts received state money to help recruit and retain teachers and other staff.
Wofford, who worked at Rogue Community College before becoming president of OSEA, wants to see similar support for higher education.
“We are the schools. We really cook it, clean it, fix it, make it happen,” Wofford said.
Beyond better pay, Wofford wants schools to be safer for staff working in classrooms and guarding hallways. She applauded the school district’s programs to help teacher assistants become teachers.
“What we need now is an ability to show that it can be a stepping stone,” she said.
Sackman, who works at an elementary school in Beaverton, wants to see more training, professional development and mentorship opportunities for paraeducators like her.
“Yes, roles and expectations may be different,” Sackman said, “but ultimately every person who works for a school district is an integral part of educating our students and our community.”
Shortage of staff on the football field
In addition to the many openings for bus drivers and substitute teachers, there are also openings for coaches.
A district has 12 coaching openings in various sports. Others have eight or nine vacancies. Oregon Athletic Coaches Association executive director Rob Younger doesn’t know of any teams unable to form or play for lack of a coach, but he calls what’s happening a shortage.
Younger said it wasn’t just an Oregon problem, either. He remembers hearing about a school district in a “big athletic state” where athletic directors went to practice clinics looking for talent.
“Almost like a job fair,” Younger said.
Chris Knudsen, associate director of Younger and the OACA, says there are many potential reasons why this is happening.
Among them, a drop in teachers who coach.
Younger and Knudsen say there are more demands on teachers that can prevent them from coaching, or that schools looking for teachers don’t always think about who can make good coaches.
“We’ve seen a real decline of ‘teacher-slash-coach’…the teaching profession is so involved that it’s hard to do both,” Knudsen said.
Younger said it’s a problem he’s noticed for the past five years. When Younger became head football coach, his 11 assistant coaches were all on the district teaching staff.
“When I retired 24 years later, of our 11 assistant coaches, only two were on district staff,” he said.
The others were members of the community.
Younger and Knudsen said low pay and time spent coaching are also potential reasons schools struggle to fill coaching positions. Some sports, like football, have become year-round jobs that don’t leave time to coach other sports.
This year, Younger and Knudsen returned to the football coaching profession. They have 48 and 47 years of experience respectively. Younger said he had to take 20 hours of classes to get certified as a volunteer coach before hitting the field.
He added that some don’t accept jobs for fear of being sued “if a coach says something that is misinterpreted,” or because of the added pressure put on coaches by parents.
Younger and Knudsen have been aware of the coaching shortage for several months now. So they are doing something that the association of civil servants launched recently: a recruitment and retention campaign.
“We are losing coaches at a higher rate than we are recruiting them,” Younger said. Experienced coaches are retiring.
They have gathered information from current coaches about hiring issues and plan to share information next April. They are working on a curriculum that schools can use to promote coaching and officiating.
With officiating, they’re “trying to get our student-athletes who love football, basketball, softball, back to work in youth officiating programs in their communities,” Younger said.
Younger and Knudsen point out that while there are needs for coaches in Oregon schools, the priority should be recruiting good coaches rather than simply filling a void.
“Let’s bring in quality people in the profession who will provide a really positive experience for student-athletes,” Younger said.