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Education

As Michigan school districts struggle to hire, "Teachers are actually free agents for the first time ever."

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A month into the school year, many Michigan school districts are still looking to hire for all kinds of positions—including teachers.

Most notably, Eastpointe Middle School in Eastpointe was forced to go virtual for a week, after several teacher resigned abruptly, leaving the school short-staffed. But districts all over the state are still desperately trying to hire, and finding new ways to work with fewer staff.

The Michigan Department of Education doesn't keep track of teacher vacancies. According to mischooldata.org, there are actually slightly more teachers in Michigan schools this year than last year—more than 110,000. At the same time, overall school staff has declined by about 10,000 people from last year, to just over 338,000 people. That means that especially when it comes to teachers, some districts are experiencing acute shortages, whereas others are doing much better.

Educators point to several converging factors behind the situation. Fewer people are going into education. COVID-19 sped up retirements, and some teachers left the profession. The remaining teachers have a wide range of options, and some are exercising them by jumping around for better opportunities.

Ben Williams, superintendent of Houghton Lake Community Schools, said the district has been looking to fill a number of positions. It’s had some success filling the vacancies, with the help of a $6,000 signing bonus.

Williams said teachers have all the power in the job market right now. “It is somewhat of a Wild West. And teachers, especially teachers who are willing to be mobile, are really in the driver’s seat.”

“The downside of that is sometimes you may get somebody for a semester or less, or a year, and then they're gone again. Because if they're willing to move, then obviously that's something they may want to do in the short run, just to take advantage of this job market.”

Some districts are using school COVID relief funds for hiring bonuses, and to boost teacher salaries. Williams said districts need to stay competitive, but also cautioned that money will inevitably run out. “I think it is also important for districts to remember that once that money's gone, if you have built yourself a cost structure or a wage scale that you simply can't sustain, that will create problems within the next two-and-a-half years,” he said.

In Kalkaska Public Schools, Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer says the district is also trying to hire teachers, particularly for special education positions.

“We also have hired some of our current staff to not necessarily teach on an overload, but to have special ed students on their caseload. [We’re] trying to be as creative as possible while also being legal,” Heitmeyer said.

Heitmeyer said when he started teaching in the 1990s, there were often 50 applicants for one teaching position, and 10 really good ones. “Now, you’re excited if you have five candidates, and one who really stands out,” he said. “But at the same time, everybody’s looking for that same person.”

Heitmeyer noted that this situation has reversed what had been declining fortunes for teachers since the Great Recession. They saw lower starting pay, and more required contributions for pensions and benefits. And teachers used to have to stay in one district for a long time to build up to higher salary levels. But with the current shortage, “Teachers are actually free agents for the first time ever.”

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