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Norwin to use long-term substitute teachers to fill positions

| Wednesday, May 31, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

As districts across West­moreland County struggle to balance budgets for the coming school year, most seek to avoid hiring new teachers they might have to lay off next year. That's why the Norwin School District is taking a more conservative approach to hiring, according to Superintendent Bill Kerr.

“Why hire somebody permanently if you're going to lay them off a year from now?” Kerr said.

Norwin plans to hire 12 long-term substitute teachers to fill teaching positions across several grades and subject areas, including music, technical education, special education and social studies. The district had three long-term substitutes this school year.

The decision to hire long-term substitutes over permanent teachers occurred as the district once again faced budget challenges. This month, the school board adopted a tentative budget of $69.8 million for 2017-18 that raises real estate taxes by 3.3 percent and avoids teacher layoffs or program cuts.

It is the sixth consecutive year that the board has raised property taxes.

“The truth is, it's not getting any better for school districts,” Kerr said.

About 75 percent of the school budget already pays costs related to staffing and benefits, Kerr said. Hiring long-term substitute teachers instead of permanent teachers will give the district flexibility this time next year when it considers the 2018-19 budget.

He also noted that staffing is tied to student enrollment, and the district's needs could change if the number of students in the district shifts.

Norwin is the only West­moreland district to maintain steady enrollment from 2005 to 2015, according to the most recent data available from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Neighboring districts Yough and Penn-Trafford had enrollment decrease by about 16 percent in that span. Hempfield Area School District, the largest in the county, lost about 13 percent of its enrollment.

The district will hire the long-term substitutes following a school board vote in June. Norwin considered contracting with staffing agency Source4Teachers, Kerr said.

The Norwin Education Association agreed to the arrangement at the school board's request, said Lori Stripay, labor relations specialist with the Pennsylvania State Education Association office near Hunker. She works with 16 teachers unions across the region.

Norwin is the only one Stripay works with to hire long-term substitutes in place of permanent teachers. Stripay said the move is understandable considering districts across the region face financial difficulties.

But it does “represent a threat to the quality of education at Norwin,” she said, because high-quality prospective teachers could be wooed to other districts promising a more stable, permanent contract.

“Overall, we believe the strategy of hiring long-term substitutes to fill vacancies should be limited in duration,” Stripay said.

Long-term substitutes are contracted to work the entire school year, with full benefits. They will start at the same yearly salary as a permanent teacher with a bachelor's degree: $49,600.

Substitute teachers who work less than 90 days are considered day-to-day substitutes and do not receive benefits.

Jason Conway, executive director of the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, said none of the schools in the county have reached out for support in hiring long-term substitutes. The intermediate unit coordinates contracts between some area school districts with the staffing company Source4Teachers. It also uses Source4Teachers to fill its staffing needs.

Source4Teachers keeps a roster of more than 22,000 education professionals across the eight states in which it operates. In Pennsylvania, Source4Teachers employs more than 6,500 education professionals who work with 94 clients — school districts, intermediate units and a handful of charter schools — across the state. The company has an office in Hempfield.

It's not yet clear whether districts turning to long-term subs to fill permanent teaching positions is a trend, said Source4Teachers spokesman Owen Murphy.

School districts statewide that use Source4Teachers for staffing needed an average of four long-term substitute teachers this school year, down from 4.7 during the 2015-16 school year.

This school year, the company helped fill 545 long-term vacancies in schools across the state. About 18 percent were for permanent, full-time positions. Most of those absences are filled at the beginning of the school year.

“Come August, September, there becomes this harsh realization that the district, in many cases, has not been able to hire as many persons in the full-time vacancies as they would have liked,” Murphy said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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