DUANESBURG — Three rural school districts will come together for a job fair this week, trying to address staff shortages as a new school year looms just three months away.
The superintendents of the Duanesburg, Schoharie and Sharon Springs school districts say the much-publicized labor shortage in upstate New York is real and it extends into the educational sector. Rural school districts, they say, have a tougher time addressing it than their suburban counterparts.
The situation was identified as a growing problem and attempts were initiated at the state level to address it long before the COVID pandemic sparked what has come to be known as “The Great Resignation,” Schoharie Superintendent David Blanchard said. But COVID made it worse.
“This problem goes way back,” he said. “It’s probably at its severest point right now.”
Sharon Springs Superintendent Thomas Yorke said a significant number of teachers were at a retirement-eligible age when the pandemic reached New York in 2020 and some wrapped up their careers at that point.
Duanesburg Superintendent James Niedermeier said the personnel shortage is across the board, not just in the teaching ranks. Substitute bus drivers are in such short supply that mechanics and the transportation supervisor are driving routes most days.
Coaches and facilities managers are obtaining commercial licenses to help out in a jam, he added. “It really has been an all-hands-on-deck situation,” he said. “I would hire anybody who wants to be a substitute driver.”
The rural nature of the districts is a hurdle they must overcome in recruiting, especially when hiring teachers. Commutes are longer and gas is expensive. Not everyone is keen on rural living. Salaries aren’t quite as good as in more densely populated areas.
So the three superintendents are using the rural nature of their districts as a selling point: Cost of living is lower and there’s opportunity for a closer teacher-community connection when the community is small.
Yorke, who was a teacher for more than a decade in the district he now leads, still gets invited to weddings and college graduations by his former students.
“There’s a lot of incentives to working in a smaller rural district that you wouldn’t get in an urban or suburban district,” Niedermeier said.
What the districts can’t do is simply crank up salaries to bring in more resumes.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the way the state funds the school system,” Niedermeier said.
Nor can they use one-time federal stimulus money to boost their workforces. “The problem is by doing that we create a hole in our budget in future years,” he said.
So they operate at a competitive disadvantage. Blanchard recalls his district’s recent triumph in recruiting one of the three special education teachers it needs. She later called to back out, saying she’d found something paying a little better closer to home.
So Schoharie is trying some more creative steps, like installing electric vehicle chargers with help from National Grid and potentially offering on-site daycare with help from BOCES.
There is also, Blanchard said, a need to interest more children in teaching as a career path, but the other parts of the school workforce are just as important. Drivers are in short supply everywhere, leading to staggered class start times, so that one driver can transport students to two schools with consecutive runs in a single morning.
The late runs and weekend runs for non-academic activities are harder to staff but are still necessary, Blanchard said.
“Coming out of the pandemic I think it’s really important for schools to make things fun for kids again,” he said.
The three-district job fair will be from 3 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the Joe Bena Auditorium in Duanesburg High School. Child care will be available for attendees.
Duanesburg’s needs are more for support staff — bus drivers, cleaners, bus monitors, clerical aides, food service helpers — but it also needs substitute teachers and aides, a technology teacher and family/consumer science teacher.
Schoharie’s needs skew more toward teachers — math, science, technology, special education — but it also needs drivers and an athletics director/assistant transportation director.
Sharon Springs needs a secondary social studies teacher and a K-12 music teacher.
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