Teachers shortage has superintendent ‘juggling’

WILLISTON -- Last month, Viola LaFontaine was facing a teacher shortage the likes of which she had not seen in her four years as superintendent of the Williston Public School District.

FNS Photo by Kathleen J. Bryan Three modular units are connected to McVay Elementary via a 320-foot hallway, creating an additional 24 classrooms in the K-6 school that has an enrollment of nearly 460 students in Williston.

WILLISTON - Last month, Viola LaFontaine was facing a teacher shortage the likes of which she had not seen in her four years as superintendent of the Williston Public School District.
With 25 open teaching positions and the resignation of another counselor, she feared having to reassign reading and other teachers who provide academic support to fill the gaps, which would have affected her reading program and forced her out of compliance.
On Wednesday, the “worst” behind her, LaFontaine happily reported that she needed two elementary teachers, two reading strategists, three counselors, two music teachers and two middle school language arts teachers.
That’s still 11 positions to fill with a week to go before school starts.
“This is like juggling balls,” she said.
A multi-pronged approach to recruiting applicants has helped after seeing an application drought in early August. Two online resources helped the district to turn the tide:, a job bank for educators and employers, and Applitrack, which allows school districts to reach a nationwide talent pool.
“There were 25,000 teachers looking for jobs. I said, ‘All I need is 27 of them.’ Since then the applications have been coming in,” she said.
A recent survey by North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders Executive Director Aimee Copas on teacher openings in the state reveals a “severe teacher shortage.” As of Aug. 4, 120 school districts reported 102 elementary and 98 high school openings across the state.
“We’re seeking ways to fill this void. It’s so stressful for all these administrators right now,” Copas said last week. “Having elementary openings is an anomaly in North Dakota.”
She said the shortage may be spinning into a national trend. For fledgling teachers, student loan debt and low salaries can discourage even the most dedicated from working in the state’s districts, where salaries range from $27,500 to below $40,000.
“State law pegs the minimum salary for a teacher with a nine-month contract at $27,500. No school district may pay less. However, most schools pay considerably more than the minimum,” said Dale Wetzel, public information officer for the Department of Public Instruction.
Considerable differences in salaries among districts exist depending on such factors as location and the cost of living.
In North Dakota’s oil-impacted counties, where the energy boom has fueled a steep increase in population, housing, food and construction costs, school districts are struggling to meet the needs of both students and staff.
“We’re under the gun getting ready to go,” Stanley Community Schools Superintendent Tim Holte said. “One of the things we face in oil country: Two families registering in the hour I was at lunch. It’s a very fluid situation.”
Holte has seen the population in the K-12 district in Mountrail County nearly double in the past six to seven years and anticipates that his projected enrollment figure of 650 may be higher by the first day of school. At the start of school last fall, the district’s enrollment was 615.
He said he lost about 11 teachers at the end of the 2013-14 school year, but he was able to fill the positions despite the “shockingly low” number of applicants for elementary teachers.
Eighty miles to the southwest in Watford City, in the county with the state’s highest oil production, McKenzie County School District Superintendent Steve Holen was feeling pretty confident last week about the new school year.
“We hired 24 new professional staff in the spring. We’re fully staffed. We should be pretty much ready to go,” he said.
The district ended the last school year with 1,075 students. Holen said he expects 1,300 or more this year. In recent years, the district has added between 400 and 500 students each year.
Housing has been a “huge challenge” for the district. Holen said the district has spent about $1.25 million for employee housing the past two years, with costs offset by grants provided by the North Dakota Board of University and School Lands.
Sixteen teachers live in an apartment building managed by the district, and about 35 other staff live in housing owned or managed by the district. That housing includes 14 single-wide trailers on elementary school property, Holen said. Rents range from $700 to $898 per month with utilities included.
In New Town, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Superintendent Marc Bluestone said Wednesday that he desperately needs a social worker and a full-time substitute teacher.
The district’s transient student population - like others in the Oil Patch - disrupts academic learning, and a 50 percent dropout rate among a student body that’s 90 percent Native American is an additional challenge.
“The honor-roll kids have a 97 percent attendance. But some kids miss 80, 90 days of school each year,” Bluestone said. “It becomes a huge issue for us to overcome.”
LaFontaine said schools in western North Dakota are all facing the struggles of students coming from different states and other countries - some even speaking different languages. Her goal is to keep quality education in the forefront despite the adversity.
“There’s a lot of challenges, a lot of opportunities and there’s also a lot of rewards. For a lot of families that come to Williston, this is a new start,” she said.

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