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Services help schools locate substitute teachers

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Regional intermediate units pushing emergency substitute teacher training programs fill a need many school districts say isn't a pressing issue.

“It comes in various flows,” said Seneca Valley Superintendent Tracy Vitale. “Do we have fewer subs to choose from? Definitely, but I wouldn't call it a shortage.”

Gov. Tom Corbett's statewide, $1 billion cuts to education in 2011, after federal stimulus funding ended, stripped the district's substitute incentive programs and caused a sharp drop in daily pay rates, Vitale said. That figure includes stimulus dollars that expired when Corbett's term began.

“We're like everyone else,” Vitale said. “We just can't offer much, so I understand if people who used to sub for us would rather work in retail or at a bank.”

Serving Butler, Lawrence and Mercer counties, the Midwestern Intermediate Unit will host a Guest Teacher Training Program on Sept. 23-25 for college graduates wishing to substitute in any of its 27 participating school districts.

After the three-day workshop, participants can apply to the state Education Department for a one-year emergency substitute certificate.

Lorinda Hess, MIU's director of continuing education, said the biannual event is especially helpful for secondary teachers with hard-to-fill content areas such as upper-level languages, special education, maths and sciences.

“Every year we ask school districts if they want to join us in this consortium, and poll their area,” Hess said. “Based on the responses, we can usually project a shortage.”

MIU recommends 40 to 60 potential substitutes per session, she said, but some may find full-time employment before they seek certification.

“The need is always there,” Hess said. “Most subs don't keep doing this for 12 years. An emergency certificate is only temporary.”

Mars Area, the only district to never participate, uses Subfinder and contracts with Delta T Group for day-to-day needs.

“Generally, subs are available when the teachers give advance notice of their absence,” said Business Manager Jill Swaney. “Unfilled absences are usually the result of teachers calling off after midnight for the next day, or if a lot of teachers call off for the same day.”

North Hills uses Aesop software that allows teachers to enter their absences. The system finds and assigns substitutes with little human interaction.

Other districts contract through companies such as Kelly Educational Staffing, a modern-day derivative of the fill-in typist, cashier and department store clerk-finder service that debuted in 1946.

In Allegheny County, the company finds substitutes for teachers, teaching aides, nurses, secretaries, food-service workers and custodians in Plum, Pine-Richland and Fox Chapel school districts. Plum's school board re-evaluated the district's $539,667 contract last week, determining the service is a value in light of a mandate in the Affordable Care Act that in 2015 will require schools with 50 or more employees to offer health insurance for substitutes who work more than 30 hours a week. Contracting through Kelly removes any future financial liability.

The Westmoreland Intermediate Unit recently contracted with a similar service, Source4Teachers.

Sarah McCluan, communications services supervisor for Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said a chronic need for fresh substitutes was one of the first issues she encountered when she joined the AIU 10 years ago.

The unit offers a SmartSTART program similar to the MIU's Guest Teacher Training Program for participating districts, including Moon Area, Brentwood, Sto-Rox and East Allegheny.

For substitutes, the option to cover classrooms in just a few districts doesn't always yield consistent financial results.

Jim Politis, president of the National Substitute Teacher Association, said shortages nationwide are spotty and prone to relying on homegrown talent.

“Recruiting and training are everything,” Politis said. “This idea that you can throw a warm body into a crash-course teaching program is crazy. And just in terms of personnel management, that's not a farsighted way to educate your children.”

Short of increasing daily pay, the 40-year educator recommends that districts begin marketing substitutes as an active and important part of the education process.

“The equivalent of one year of every child's K-12 experience is taught by substitutes,” he said. “Do you really want to leave that to chance?”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or

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