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Low pay, lack of job security fuel shortage of qualified substitute teachers

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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Mary Raich of Seward, a former Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher, sits for a portrait in her home on Friday, December 14, 2012.
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By Jewels Phraner
Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 10:34 p.m.

Pay them well and they will come — sometimes.

That's what Sto-Rox School District Superintendent Michael Panza found when he could not hire enough substitute teachers.

“When people were not coming here to substitute teach, our principals called them to find out why,” Panza said.

It all came down to money.

When the school board raised its daily rate from $75 to $85 a day, it helped, but Sto-Rox, like districts nationwide, still has trouble in finding qualified substitutes.

In Pennsylvania, substitutes earn an average of $86 a day, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Administrators have struggled to find substitute teachers for decades, according to Butch Santicola of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

“The biggest problem with substitutes is the uncertainty of it all,” Santicola said. “One day you're on; the next day you're off. People, especially in this economy, want security. And substitute teaching offers no guarantee of eventual full-time employment.”

Ligonier Valley Superintendent Chris Oldham said a shortage of substitutes has been a constant problem throughout her career.

Oldham said some certified substitutes — many caught up in the furlough of more than 4,000 teachers statewide last year — are opting for full-time employment in retail or other fields.

Substitutes must have a bachelor's degree and teaching certificate to work in public schools, according to the state rules. In classes with long-term teacher absences — 20 school days or more — districts must try to find a substitute certified in that subject area.

“Try to find a physics/chemistry substitute teacher,” Panza said. “It's hard enough to find a full-time teacher that's certified in physics and chemistry, let alone a substitute.”

In addition, pay in the private sector for someone who specializes in the sciences is often higher than in education.

According to NASA, an entry-level physical scientist earns $96,690 to $147,857 annually.

If a certified substitute cannot be found, a district can apply for an emergency permit to fill a position with someone with a different certification or no teaching certificate. Some intermediate units offer training for those people, but it's not required.

Mary Raich, a retired Pittsburgh teacher and now a substitute, said the mini training courses are not sufficient.

“It's incredible to me that a person with a college degree who takes a two-week training course can sub,” Raich said. “Everyone thinks they know how to teach because they went to school, but that's not the case.”

Across the nation, schools have started outsourcing the hiring of substitute teachers to employment services.

Locally, Plum has used Kelly Services, whose “Kelly Girls” began as temporary office workers back in 1946. In 1997, the firm began managing substitute teachers.

Loretta White, a school board member and retired Plum teacher of 34 years, said the service costs too much and might not provide the best substitutes.

Kelly Services declined to comment.

Click here to see teacher absentee rates for all districts.

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