The Forest Lake Area School District began assessing its staffing needs for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year in January. The ball is rolling following the school board’s approval of two staffing-related items during the meeting on Thursday, April 7.

The school board approved reinstating part-time teachers who assumed full-time roles this school year back to their contracted part-time positions. The positions were switched to full time to help address the substitute teacher shortages with an increased rate of staff absences during the pandemic. Now those positions will go back to part time. 

“It was extremely helpful to get us through the worst of the pandemic and the worker shortage around substitute teachers,” superintendent Steve Massey said. 

This method focused on part-time teachers who teach specialties at the schools they are employed at. With the extension of hours, the teachers could fill in for absent teachers when they weren’t teaching their own classes. The resolution to transition five employees back to their part-time positions was approved by the school board in a 6-0 vote, with board member Julie Corcoran absent. 

“That effort was to extend elementary music and phy. ed. teacher specialists who were on contract for less than a full-time position,” Massey said. 

Forest Lake Elementary Principal Kenny Newby said both his music and physical education teachers were bumped up to the full-time status under this protocol. 

“It was a great benefit to our school because those positions, like any subbing positions, are often just ways to fill positions that come up last minute,” Newby said. 

The district funded this program through its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding it received as COVID-19 relief. Those funds are almost depleted, according to Massey, but the district is considering extending this staffing solution again for next year, as it extended the positions the second time this year.  

“We will analyze the need for keeping these folks, or to extend them next year. So if we need them next year in this position we will look to see if there’s a way we can afford to do that,” Massey said. 

The district will analyze the best way to use the remaining ESSER funding for the upcoming school year. 

An additional staffing precaution, also funded through ESSER, was approved at the Thursday, Oct. 7, school board meeting. It permitted hiring 11 substitute teachers to be designated to a specific school in the district as a way to make up for any staffing shortfalls for the day. 

“They were the first line of coverage for an open classroom or an absence in a classroom,” Massey said. 

Substitutes included in this program will not be included in next year’s staffing measures as of right now, but their helpfulness wasn’t lost on the district or principals.

“Those were extremely valuable positions for us this year,” Massey said. 

There was a substitute teacher shortage throughout the district affecting the Forest Lake Area High School in a different way than the elementary schools. 

High school principal Jim Caldwell said the elementary schools struggled more than the high school due to the nature of their teaching models with one teacher assigned to one room. 

“Our teachers, every 45 minutes, were changing to a new class, which allows us to cover internally with staff members on their prep time,” Caldwell said.

The upcoming year promises more help from substitute teachers for the high school, since their sub roster of retired teachers is returning to its normal size.

“You’re taking a population that’s up in age and are at high risk, and they just chose to not sub during the pandemic. We are starting to see them trickle back in,” Caldwell said. 

As Caldwell put it, elementary schools presented different challenges by needing one teacher to fill a classroom for an entire day, as per the teaching models.

Newby said Forest Lake Elementary didn’t have a dire need to have one of the 11 designated substitute teachers stationed at the school since with the specialist teachers worked full-time roles. But Forest Lake Elementary benefited from this program on occasion. 

“Any day that they were assigned to that building but weren’t needed in that building, then us principals were ... communicating early every morning because we may try to put them to use at another building that was maybe short that day,” he said. 

The other item regarding staffing approved by the school board on Thursday, April 7, was the non-renewal of probationary teachers at the district. 

“It’s always a tough process,” school board member Gail Theisen said. 

In a 6-0 vote, with school board member Julie Corcoran absent, the board approved a classified list of personnel whose probationary contracts won’t be renewed with the district. 

The district’s decision to not continue probationary staff contracts relies on a number of factors, such as student enrollment shifts at schools, budgetary guidelines and probationary teacher performance. 

“We can’t keep somebody from one year to the next, and then not have a  position for them. That would have a big impact on the budget,” Massey said. 

Non-renewal of probationary teachers is an annual assessment allowing the district to meet the needs of how students enroll in classes for the upcoming year. 

“From one year to the next we may need more teachers in one department versus another department,” Massey said. 

With the normal considerations of who to hire for the upcoming school year, the district took staffing shortages into account when evaluating the probationary teacher contracts.

“We certainly are concerned about teacher shortage. That’s a real phenomena right now and a real concern. At the same time we want to make sure that we have the best teachers in our schools,” Massey said. 

In discussions about what school staffing will look like in the upcoming year, the district understands the staffing challenges may look similar to these past few years throughout the pandemic. 

“It’s certainly possible that we’re going to need to have the daily subs if not extending the part-time people to full time again next year,” Massey said. 

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