Sujindren Selvanayagam

File / The Outlook

Dadeville High School math teacher Sujindren Selvanayagam writes an exercise on the board. Math, science and special needs educators tend to be the hardest to recruit.

With the first day of school less than a month away, Alabama public schools are scrambling to fill new vacancies following the highest number of teacher and support staff retirements the state has seen in nearly a decade.  

"I hate to say it (but) there are actual bidding wars now going on for individuals," Tallapoosa County Schools superintendent Ray Porter told the school board Monday, following the surprise resignation of the Dadeville High School band director that morning. "Right now, I'm proud to say that the direction we're heading is drawing people to our county, and that's a blessing. But at some point we may have to address the bidding war that's going on."

Dadeville's band director was among the handful of resignations and retirements approved by the Tallapoosa County Board of Education Monday, as well as several special education teachers. Neighboring Alexander City Schools posted on Facebook the same day to say it was currently hiring for 11 positions, including two in special ed. According to Porter, a former special ed teacher himself, the field is particularly scarce right now.

"It's very hard, and that's everywhere. Our surrounding school systems are looking for them, recruiting them, paying (them) signing bonuses," he said, adding those bonuses can be as high as $5,000, or include extended contracts. "It's extremely competitive."

The scarcity comes in spite of increased compensation. Earlier this year, Alabama tried to address its teacher shortage by passing a 2% pay raise for all school personnel, as well as the TEAMS Act which offers credentialed math and science teachers an even bigger salary increase. Traditionally, those teachers have been hard to find given the STEM field's more lucrative career options.

"They did a good job with the math and science, but special education was overlooked," Porter said. "But I think the state will go back and look at that to try to add some incentives to encourage young people to go into that career path."

In 2022, those incentives may increase across the board.

"Because it's an election year next year, I fully expect the legislature is going to come back in and give another pay increase, assuming the economy is still strong," Alabama Education Association representative T.C. Coley said. "That's just the way it works."

In the longer term, however, Coley — also a Tallapoosa County Commissioner — says public education is going to have to do a lot more to make the teaching profession more attractive, whether relating to compensation, job satisfaction or even external factors like the availability of middle class housing.

Until then, educators are still leaving the profession faster than graduates are entering it, and not just because of COVID-19.  

"I think the pandemic actually just pulled the scab off a very deep wound," Coley said. "The reality is there was already a teacher shortage before the pandemic. There were already teachers frustrated with the changes in education."

On the other hand, the shortage has afforded math, science and special ed teachers some bargaining power. As most school districts do not pay above the state's standard salary matrix, the power lies not so much in salary negotiation, Coley said, than choice of location.  

"Those people in those fields especially are going to have the ability to do more in terms of picking and choosing," he said, adding that local pay raises and signing bonuses as well as personal preference are all factors.

Alex City Schools public relations specialist Jessica Sanford said the district does not currently plan to offer signing bonuses. But while Tallapoosa County Schools has yet to offer anything, Porter does not rule out the possibility. The school district has until August to get the spending plan for its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) allocation — the third wave of federal COVID-relief funds — approved by the state.

"I don't know if we'll use local money or ESSER money, but that is something that we'll have to address, especially for some of those hard-to-fill special education positions," Porter said.

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