ROCK SPRINGS — Wyoming schools face a staffing problem. While districts are working to offer competitive salaries and benefits, neighboring states are doing the same, leaving more schools with open positions.
On Tuesday, the Sweetwater County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees talked about the ongoing use of long-term substitutes, continuing a discussion from the August board meeting when there were more than a dozen unfilled staff vacancies.
Sweetwater No. 1 Director of Human Resources Nicole Bolton noted that the hiring decisions were not made lightly. They have been choosing from candidates who are former teachers, have degrees or are about to complete degrees, including many familiar subs. She also stressed that this is a statewide issue and that districts that had no struggles attracting teachers are now left with lingering openings, which is worrying.
Bolton shared that her happiness following a recent teacher salary raise was curtailed when Utah immediately matched the increase. She said staff members are flocking to districts with amenities they can’t offer. While high teacher salaries in the state kept the issue from arising in the past, she said it has arrived in Wyoming.
Citing recent rumblings about the Wyoming Legislature targeting education, Trustee Max Mickelson said this is not the time to cut funding.
Trustee George Reedy asked about instances where teacher contracts were not renewed for the 2019-20 school year. Bolton said she could not talk about specific cases, but in general they work to do what’s best for the students, and in some cases that means not extending contracts.
The district is still looking at filling positions, and Bolton said they hope to hire some teachers to start in January.
The school board was also asked to allow the district to exceed the maximum number of students per classroom.
The usual standard is no more than 27 students per teacher in seventh- through 12th-grade classes, and three courses are overenrolled by one. As of Monday night, there were 28 students in a Health Academy class and a U.S. history class at Rock Springs High School and one drama class at Rock Springs Junior High School.
Bolton and RSHS Principal Annie Fletcher said staff have been looking at options and started making adjustments when courses began to get close to the maximum.
Fletcher said instead of focusing exclusively on class numbers, they consider teacher load. She noted that some instructors are OK with expanding a class, and in other cases such an expansion would lead to a staff resignation. The principal said some teachers are willing to take on one more so a student doesn’t have to lose an opportunity, especially in cases where it isn’t practical to add another class for just one more pupil.
Board Chairwoman Carol Jelaco noted the board allowed the district to exceed the maximum under similar, limited conditions in the past. The administration will also monitor class sizes and give a monthly update at board meetings.
The trustees voted unanimously to approve the request.
The board went into an executive session at the end of the meeting to discuss a legal and personnel matter.
No action was taken when the trustees returned from the session.