Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
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Health care law forces schools to re-examine substitute teachers

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CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County school district still needs to hire about 300 more substitute teachers this school year, though next school year those jobs may come at a higher cost.

The school district posted job listings this week stating there is a “critical shortage” of elementary, middle and high school substitutes in the county. There are currently 1,200 substitute teachers working in the school district, but not all are picking up assignments regularly, Ron Ciranna, assistant superintendent of human resources, said in an email. The goal is to have a pool of 1,500 substitute teachers working on a regular basis, he wrote.

However, Pinellas County and other school districts across the nation are also taking a closer look at how many hours substitutes actually work this school year. Under a portion of the Affordable Care Act that will go into effect in 2015, school districts will be required to provide health care benefits to all employees who regularly work at least 30 hours a week. With the number of substitutes who regularly find work in the school district, the change could cost millions.

“We have substitutes that are just in there for a day or two ... but we also have long term subs and it gets to the point where they are actually functioning as a classroom teacher,” said School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook. “The fact is, if our teachers are not going to be in the classroom we’re going to need a substitute. Doubling classes up and that kind of thing doesn’t solve that problem.”

School districts in New Jersey, Tennessee and other states are responding by restricting substitutes to only working four or fewer days a week. Other school districts are planning to only hire one or two permanent substitutes per school to make sure those called in for emergency situations do not work a full 30 hours. Whether Pinellas County will adopt similar plans is still a big “maybe,” said Ted Pafundi, the school district’s director of risk management and insurance.

Right now, the school district is beginning the process of monitoring substitute teachers and other part-time employees to see how many meet minimum eligibility requirements for benefits, Pafundi said. Once the school district sees the potential cost, any necessary policy changes will follow suit. Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties all share the same benefits consultant, helping the school districts share information and discuss best practices, Pafundi said.

“Of course, the work we’re doing now assumes the rates we’re currently operating with are still in effect in 2015,” Pafundi said. “It’s all a big unknown, and all we can do is try to calculate some data so we know how we need to address it.”

Substitute shortages are common and cyclical this time of year, as teachers prepare to retire or get hired to work full-time. However, now that teachers are expected to attend extra professional development courses as the school district prepares to switch to the Common Core standards next school year, and many schools are offering before- and after-school tutoring classes that require extra planning and teacher effort, there may be more vacancies in the classroom.

“It’s not enough to find a warm body to put in the classroom; we want people that can actually instruct our children and keep them safe when their teachers are gone,” Cook said. “We’re going to look at different ways to encourage our employees to be there — maybe with new wellness plans, because if you’re healthy you can be at work — and then also look at different ways to meet the needs of students.”

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