Sacramento-area school districts struggle to find substitute teachers

Substitute teacher Michael Deurloo helps sophomore Cameron Davis during a math class in the Bella Vista High School library.
Substitute teacher Michael Deurloo helps sophomore Cameron Davis during a math class in the Bella Vista High School library.

Michael Deurloo received 15 requests to work as a substitute teacher in San Juan Unified School District classrooms on a recent Friday.

That wasn’t unusual, he said. A substitute shortage allows him to work almost daily and have his pick of classes.

School districts across the country have struggled with a severe substitute shortage for the last few years as an economic rebound has created better job options. The shortage has grown more severe as California school districts remove teachers from classrooms to receive training in Common Core State Standards.

The result: More administrators are substituting in elementary schools, students get crammed into other classrooms for the day, and high school and middle school teachers forgo their preparation periods to fill in for colleagues.

“We prioritize,” said Jacqueline Perez, director of human resources for Twin Rivers Unified. “Site principals or student-support teachers might be pulled to sub in the classroom.”

The problem is likely to get worse if school districts follow the lead of districts elsewhere in the U.S. and limit the hours of individual substitutes to avoid paying their medical insurance. Changes in federal health care law require employers to provide insurance to anyone who works an average of 30 hours or more a week.

“It’s the perfect storm,” said Suzanne Speck, associate vice president of School Services of California Inc., an education consulting firm.

During the recession, the pool of fill-in teachers swelled as teachers resorted to substitute work after they were laid off, district leaders said. As districts have begun to hire again, those teachers have returned to full-time classroom positions.

Some also theorize that potential teachers, discouraged by years of layoffs, are deciding not to enter the profession. That hurts the substitute pipeline because newly minted teachers often take substitute jobs while waiting for full-time positions.

Deurloo said substitute pay is too low to keep good teachers. San Juan Unified has been paying its substitutes $100 a day for at least 13 years, said Kim Minugh, district spokeswoman. Deurloo said he makes about $14,000 a year if he works almost every day.

In comparison, the average salary for California full-time teachers was $71,396 in 2014. The average salary for a teacher was $71,583 in San Juan Unified and $65,695 in Sacramento City Unified, two of the region’s largest districts.

Daily base pay for substitutes in the county’s large districts is between $90 and $135. Substitutes can receive bonuses, in some cases significant ones, for meeting a minimum number of teaching days in a district, working long-term jobs, having special credentials or being a retired annuitant who returns.

On a recent Monday, Deurloo taught five periods at Bella Vista High School that included math, study skills and career opportunities. He said substitutes must have good classroom-management skills. “Subbing is not easy,” Deurloo said. “Students test you all the time. ... People just leave and say there are easier ways to make money without the stress.”

Deurloo, 66, a credentialed teacher and actor, draws a pension from the Screen Actors Guild and receives Social Security payments. He considers his job akin to volunteering. “I like being here,” he said. “I want to be here.”

Although requirements vary from district to district, substitutes typically must hold either a teaching credential or a bachelor’s degree with an emergency substitute-teaching permit.

Students in Mirna Jope’s French class at Rio Americano High School in Wilhaggin are not likely to end up with a substitute who speaks French because of the random nature of selecting subs through an automated phone system.

Teachers have the option to request a specific substitute. Jope tapped a few guest teachers in the past who spoke French, but they are no longer available, she said.

Substitutes don’t always follow or even open the lesson plan she leaves, she said. Last fall, parents complained that a substitute played the movie “Elf” instead of teaching the class, she said.

Increasing the pay and benefits of guest teachers would go a long way toward improving the quality of substitute teaching, Jope said.

In order to stay competitive, California school districts generally raise their rates when others in the region do, Speck said. The rates are starting to go up in some area districts. Sacramento City Unified raised its daily base substitute pay in July from $98.31 to $116.16, while Elk Grove Unified hiked its pay for “dedicated subs” – those who work more than 15 days a school year – from $100 to $125.

Beyond that, Sacramento City Unified has a particularly high 52 percent bonus that substitutes can obtain after having worked five days in the district. That increases daily pay for many substitutes from $116.16 to $176.63.

“Raising substitute pay is an option we are considering as we look at ways to increase the number of high-quality substitutes in our pool,” Minugh said in an email.

The impact of the shortage can be felt around the region despite large substitute pools. Elk Grove Unified has 659 substitutes in its pool, while San Juan Unified has 500 and Sacramento City Unified has 511.

But a large pool of substitutes doesn’t necessarily mean there will be enough to fill all the seats of a district’s absent teachers. Some in the pool could choose not to substitute on a given day or sub for another district.

San Juan usually needs about 200 substitutes a day, while Sacramento City Unified needs about 225 on regular days and 375 on days when teacher training is scheduled.

San Juan Unified started the school day on a recent Thursday short 26 teachers for its classrooms, according to SmartFindExpress, a website that matches substitutes with classes in need of teachers.

“We are running into this issue of competition with other districts and more demand than our current pool will handle,” Minugh said. Guest teachers can be “choosy” about where they want to work, she said.

Speck said districts are being strategic about planning their teacher training to ensure they have adequate coverage in the classroom. Twin Rivers pays its teachers to attend training sessions after school and during breaks. Training during regular school hours is not scheduled for either Monday or Friday – days of the week when they have the highest number of absences, Perez said.

Districts sometimes pay more to people willing to work at schools that have a hard time filling substitute jobs. Folsom Cordova Unified pays $130 to daily substitutes who teach at secondary schools in Rancho Cordova, as well as for those who teach special education. The district’s scale otherwise runs from $90 to $105 for daily substitutes, depending on the person’s credential and assignment.

The district is seeking a more permanent solution for schools that historically have had problems finding substitutes. District officials are considering hiring roving substitutes in permanent positions for schools like Cordova High School, which has the highest number of unfilled substitute jobs, said Karen Knight, assistant superintendent at Folsom Cordova Unified.

When districts cannot find substitutes, some pay extra to full-time staff who cover classrooms or take additional students.

Folsom Cordova Unified pays elementary school teachers more when they absorb students from another class for the day. It also pays middle school teachers a full day of substitute pay when they spend five preparation periods subbing for colleagues, Knight said.

San Juan Unified does not pay more to secondary teachers when they use their prep periods to fill in for absent co-workers. But the district also can’t require those teachers to use their prep periods to sub more than three times a school year. That makes scheduling tricky.

“It’s a chess game,” Minugh said.

The struggle to keep substitutes is likely to get more expensive for districts because of two new laws that will affect schools starting in July.

A new California law requires employers to provide sick leave to employees working at least 30 days a calendar year. That means substitute teachers can accrue and take sick leave at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked.

Districts are also mindful of the federal health care change requiring them to provide health insurance to substitutes that work an average of 30 hours per week. Education leaders throughout the region are working on plans to follow the law, but so far none have said they will limit hours to avoid paying for insurance.

“School districts can’t be too concerned about that,” Speck said. “They have to make sure they have classes covered. They are between a rock and hard place.”

Editor’s note (Feb. 27): This story has been updated to explain that although Sacramento City Unified has a daily base rate of $116.16 for substitutes, the district offers a 52 percent bonus once teachers have subbed for at least five days in the district, amounting to $176.63 per day. That is the highest amount among large Sacramento County districts for substitutes who are not retired annuitants.

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.

Daily pay for substitute teachers in Sacramento County

The base substitute pay rate varies at Sacramento area school districts. Most districts offer additional pay to retirees, long-term substitutes and those who work at hard-to-fill schools beyond the amounts listed here.

Twin Rivers – $135

San Juan Unified – $100

Folsom Cordova – $90-$105

Sacramento City – $116 *

Elk Grove Unified – $100 day**

Natomas Unified – $120 a day

*Subs who work more than five days earn $177

**Subs who work more than 15 days a school year earn $125.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee