BISMARCK – Halfway through the school year, more than 200 teaching jobs remain vacant in North Dakota’s public schools after a “community experts” pilot program aimed at easing the state’s teacher shortage failed to fill a single slot.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said the 204 teacher openings that were reported by the Dec. 10 deadline as required by the U.S. Department of Education underscores the seriousness of the shortage.

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“This is the highest we’ve seen, and the trend is definitely trending upward,” she said Monday, adding, “We’re at a critical point that the state of North Dakota needs to look at short-term and long-term solutions for this problem.”

The vacancies include 35 teaching jobs in career and technical education, 32 in social studies, 28 in special education and 20 in business education, according to the Department of Public Instruction.

Baesler said surveys have found districts applying a variety of fixes to cope with the shortage, including increasing class sizes and combining classes, using long-term substitutes and offering courses via interactive television and other distance education methods.

“And some are just simply not offering that coursework,” she said.

Schools also have been hiring retired teachers and administrators to fill openings. During the 2014-15 school year, 268 retired educators re-entered the teacher ranks, 24 worked as superintendents and 22 had other administrative jobs, the DPI reported, citing data from the Teachers’ Fund for Retirement.

Williston Public School District, which had 14 job openings just weeks before school started in August, had to get creative in filling positions, Superintendent Viola LaFontaine said. The district hired teachers out of retirement, but some could only work half a year, so some college students who student-taught last fall and graduated in December were hired to fill out the rest of the school year, she said.

“It’s gotten better,” LaFontaine said, though the district still has 11 openings, including two math teacher openings that are hard to fill, she said.

Despite a slowdown in the oil industry, district enrollment increased by about 180 students this year, she said.

In an effort to address the teacher shortage, Gov. Jack Dalrymple approved an emergency rule last August that allows school districts to issue a letter of approval to someone who isn’t a licensed educator but has a specific area of expertise related to the teaching assignment.

But only one person applied for the community expert program, and that person didn’t qualify because they wanted to teach agriculture but had a two-year degree in machine tooling, said Janet Welk, executive director of the state Education Standards and Practices Board, the state’s teacher licensing board.

The board, with counsel from the attorney general’s office, determined that it couldn’t issue temporary teacher credentials unless they were based on a bachelor’s degree in the content area to be taught, Welk said.

Baesler said she doesn’t expect the state to try the program again.

“There just isn’t enough latitude (in state law) to provide that community expert opportunity,” she said.

The task force assembled by Baesler that advanced the community expert policy continues to explore potential solutions to the shortage, including developing a central website for listing job openings.

The state Board of Higher Education also has authorized Valley City State University, Mayville State University and Dickinson State University to offer a master’s degree program that would allow those with a bachelor’s degree to earn the credentials they need to be licensed teachers. The program still needs accreditation approval.