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Temp agency to fill most substitute teacher needs in Kingsport public schools

Rick Wagner • Jan 15, 2020 at 7:30 PM

KINGSPORT — The city school board has unanimously voted to have most substitute classroom teachers hired and employed through a private contractor or temp agency called ESS, a process planned to begin in February.

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH FINDING SUBS?

“It (getting substitute teachers on a daily basis) continues to be a challenge,” Kingsport City Schools Chief Human Resources Officer Jennifer Guthrie told the Board of Education before its 5-0 approval vote Tuesday night. She said that sub searches are successful only 75% of the time or so and sometimes less, with working as a sub not as attractive as the economy has improved and more jobs are available. “This obviously puts a strain on our classrooms.”

Superintendent Jeff Moorhouse said using teaching assistants as subs takes them away from their regular duties helping teachers. “We’re not getting the impact of the teacher assistant services we’re paying for,” Moorhouse said.

As outlined by Rock Springs Elementary School teacher Teddi Adler from adjoining Sullivan County Schools at last week’s county school board meeting, students in that system sometimes are merged into larger classes or teacher assistants are pressed into service as teachers, neither the best for students or teacher. Sullivan pays its subs less than surrounding systems, Adler said, but Guthrie said Kingsport still struggles to get subs.

“We’re not just seeing great success,” Guthrie said of efforts to find more subs on a daily basis. The private company, with a regional ESS Southteast LLC office in Knoxville and a Kingsport representative, can employee subs full time and give them benefits, including health insurance and retirement plans, whereas the school system doesn’t do that and thus must limit the hours subs can work. 

“The expectation is we’re going to build up to a 90% fill rate,” Guthrie said of the contract going through the end of 2020 with an option to renew. In addition, retired teachers are limited to 900 work hours a year as a sub or they see a decrease in state retirement pay, something that is not an issue with a private company hiring them. In the mean time, Kingsport City Schools will use its current sub finder program but likely will transition to the ESS sub finder program starting next school year, Guthrie said.

WHAT ARE THE COSTS/SAVINGS?

The system will pay a 29% additional cost above and beyond sub pay, Guthrie said, but subs will get paid the same as now, although she said it may be time to increase sub pay soon. Cost savings include having ESS doing the payroll and benefits for all interim subs, those who are certified teachers required when a position is vacant 20 consecutive school days, alone a savings of $60,000 to $70,000 a year, she said.

Guthrie estimated the 29% applied to $500,000 a year in sub costs would add about $145,000 plus a little more because of the projected higher fill rate. However, it would reduce the school payroll burden and end up costing the system $30,000 to $40,000 more a year, which board President Carrie Upshaw said would be money well spent if the fill rate goes up to 90%. Upshaw and Guthrie also mentioned the “soft costs” of losing teacher assistants’ work and employee time at the school level used to track down subs.

“Ultimately it’s the loss of serving the students, and that’s unacceptable,” Upshaw said.

The only group not to be hired through ESS would be retirees tapped for interim replacements to avoid paying them their pay rate when they retired plus paying the company 29%.

WHAT ABOUT TRAINING/MONITORING?

Another advantage, school system officials said, is ESS will handle training and orientation for new subs, although existing ones will be grandfathered in without those sessions usually held on Saturdays. And if the school system ends up hiring a sub as a full-time teacher straight from ESS, which Guthries said would rarely happen since most become teacher assistants first, the system would have to pay ESS $2,500.

ESS will provide the school board updates and feedback from principals on how the system is working, and school officials and an ESS representative said the subs would answer to building administrators and could be used in two or more classes as needed throughout the school day.

If ESS can’t find a suitable sub in a reasonable length of time, the school system still can hire subs directly, Guthrie said in answering a question from board member Todd Golden.