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The Madison School Board is set to consider two policies later this month, one that would provide five days of COVID-19 leave this school year, and another that would offer a bonus for staff covering other classrooms during their prep time.

The Madison Metropolitan School District still has about 124 teaching vacancies more than a month into the school year.

And officials are not finding enough substitutes to cover the openings when other open positions like special education assistants are factored in. Interim chief of human resources Tracey Caradine told the School Board Monday night that the fill rate for subs is just below 50%, including with central office staff members filling in at buildings two days a week.

“We’re still hiring, we’re still getting people through the onboarding process,” Caradine said.

The 124 vacancies is down slightly from two weeks before the school year, when superintendent Carlton Jenkins told CNN the district had “about 135” vacancies. In August, School Board President Ali Muldrow contrasted the situation with August 2018, when the district had 30 vacancies before the 2018-19 school year.

On Monday, Muldrow told administrators that she would appreciate more information on how the situation is playing out in buildings.

“It would be really helpful to have an overall picture of what both our vacancies and our fill rate for subs look like, especially considering that we’re asking our administrators to sub about two days a week,” Muldrow said. “If we have administrators subbing, if we’re asking teachers to sub, if we had a robust hiring effort for subs, I’m curious overall what our approach to filling vacancies is.”

A parent of two school-aged children, Muldrow said she wants to understand what the vacancies mean for students, citing examples like a science class where the full-time teacher hasn’t been hired yet, or how schools are working to provide stability to students whose classrooms require a substitute.

“When you come back to us … it would be really helpful to understand the full scope of our staffing strategy in terms of filling vacancies, whether it is long-term subs, central office administrators subbing or teachers using their planning time to fill in for members of the faculty who are not there on any given day,” Muldrow said. “I am curious about what our overall approach to making sure somebody is in front of our kids is.”

Caradine said the district is working on “a robust hiring plan, recruitment plan.”

Given the timing of the school year, the Cap Times asked district spokesperson Tim LeMonds in an email Tuesday if the district foresees filling the openings or anticipates they will remain vacant.

“We are continuing to work very diligently and strategically to fill positions when they become vacant, and it is our intent to fill these positions as soon as we are able,” LeMonds wrote in response.

The Cap Times also asked for substitute fill rate reports so far this year, but LeMonds said the human resources department is preparing those for a presentation to the board on Monday.

Further, when asked “what is the district doing to fill these vacancies with the numbers nearly the same as a month ago when the year began?” LeMonds responded, “our numbers are not the same as they were at the beginning of the school year.”

“Our teacher fill rate is at 83%, and thus far the district has filled 607 teacher vacancies for this new school year,” LeMonds wrote. “Of the over 2,400 teaching positions in MMSD, the current vacancy numbers can be, in part, attributed to a combination of attrition with recent departures and internal transfers as teachers move based on need, and teacher shortages.

“The district is continuing its aggressive recruitment efforts to recruit and hire new staff, and retain current staff.”

COVID leave, sub pay

On Monday, the board discussed a pair of administration proposals aimed at staff benefits it is expected to vote on later this month. One would provide five days of COVID-19 leave this school year, while the other would offer a bonus for staff covering other classrooms during their prep time.

A memo from Caradine on the second item explained that the “incentive is meant to serve as a short-term solution to assist with the overall staffing challenges that MMSD is experiencing.” The change would provide a bonus equivalent to the difference between a teacher’s normal hourly rate and the usual $22 an hour for classes taught during teachers’ prep time.

When asked about the frequency at which teachers are foregoing prep time to cover a class, Caradine said it was “a hard question to answer” but “a good question.”

“All I can say is each school is different, so it just depends on the need at that school at the time,” she said.

Board member Laura Simkin requested that information as they consider voting on the policy later this month. Caradine said she would look into it, and senior executive of staff Richard McGregory promised they would get the information to the board.

“We need to know some dollar amount around what we would be voting on,” Simkin said.

The Cap Times asked LeMonds for a breakdown of vacancies by school on Tuesday morning, but LeMonds said in a Wednesday email that the data would not be available in time for publication of the story.

“We currently break it out only by school level, and to break it down by school would take time for our HR department to synthesize,” LeMonds wrote. “This cannot be provided within your timeframe.”

The COVID leave proposal would require staff to show a positive test for themselves or a family member they need to care for. If the days are not used, they would not be paid out at the end of the year.

Administrators pitched the idea, which is similar to one approved last year, as a way to “extend human decency” to staff. However, they acknowledged it’s a challenge, given the staffing shortages.

“We are challenged with trying to come up with collaborative solutions in a thoughtful and deliberative way,” Caradine said.

Officials said they spoke with surrounding school districts and found that less than one-third of them are doing any kind of COVID leave procedure beyond their already-existing sick leave days.

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