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The sub solution: How Denton ISD might revamp its substitute teacher program

Denton ISD may be looking to outsource its substitute teacher program in an effort to fill more vacancies when teachers have to miss a day.

Board members received a report during their regular November meeting from the district's human resources department. As the number of teacher absences continues to rise, the number of people to fill them remains relatively stagnant.

According to district data, there were 35,573 teacher absences reported for the 2016-17 school year, roughly 3,000 more than the previous year. But only 31,688 of those vacancies were filled, or about 500 more than the 2015-16 school year. That gap has caused the district's fill rate to drop from 93 percent in 2015-16 to 89 percent in 2016-17.

When vacancies aren't filled, kids in that class are split up and put into other classrooms for the day, bringing with them potential distractions as more students crowd into one room.

"Unfilled vacancies create problems on campuses," human resources coordinator Tracy Johnson said. "Think about what it looks like for a kindergarten classroom to have over 30 kids in that class. What type of learning continues on a day like that?"

Recruiting and maintaining high-quality substitute teachers has been a continuous problem for the district for more than a decade, officials said. Currently, the district has 647 substitutes in its system, with an average of 225 working each day. Some days — mostly Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays — are harder to staff than others.

Johnson said the HR department has been trying to remedy the problem by streamlining its application process, providing more orientation times and offering extra pay for teachers willing to substitute during their conference period.

But it still hasn't been enough, Johnson said.

"As much as we want our program to be proactive, we're still very reactive," she said.

Enter Education Solution Services.

The Tennessee-based staffing company specializes in the recruitment of qualified teachers, substitutes and administrative support staff. ESS has been in business for 17 years and works with more than 400 districts across the country.

If Denton ISD decides to contract with the company, ESS would take over the district's entire substitute program. Representatives from the company said ESS would have an on-the-ground team housed in the district's Central Services Building and would gear its recruitment efforts toward local channels.

Current Denton ISD substitute teachers would be offered a position at their current pay rate, which starts off at $70 per day and grows with educational experience and how long a sub is needed for. Under ESS, subs could also be eligible for benefits packages and incentive programs. They would also get paid every Friday through direct deposit, something Denton ISD doesn't currently offer, Johnson said.

ESS, which boasts at least a 95 percent fill rate, would also offer the district customized reports to monitor the success of the program. According to district spokesman Mario Zavala, Denton ISD currently spends between $1.8 million and $2 million per year on its substitute program. The contract with ESS would cost the district roughly $1.9 million, he said.

Zavala also added that Denton would be the first district in Texas to work with ESS if the measure is approved. Board members seemed receptive to the idea and could vote on a contract in a future board meeting.

"You know, the word 'outsource' just scares me to death because it doesn't always work," Denton school board member Dorothy Martinez said. "I'm a Type A personality, a control freak. But what I'm hearing [from ESS] is so good. I hope that you become part of this district and that you're every bit of what you sound like you are."

The next school board meeting will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12, at the Stephens Central Services Building, 1307 N. Locust St. in Denton.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.