Legend:“[Substitute teachers are] hours and they should be compensated respectfully and fairly,” said Adam Piasecki (center), president of the Ithaca Teachers Association and leader of the initiative. Photo provided.
In Ithaca, three locals are working together to make sure the teacher shortage doesn’t short-circuit teachers.
Over the summer, the presidents of the Ithaca Teachers Association, Ithaca Substitutes Association (ISA), and Education Support Professionals/Ithaca (ESPI) joined forces to negotiate salary increases and new benefits for long-serving substitute teachers and school-bound professionals. term teaching positions in the Ithaca City School District.
“I negotiated for them a base salary that is less than a certified teacher’s salary, but with the concept that they are doing a teaching job,” said Adam Piasecki, president of the Ithaca Teachers Association and responsible for initiative. “They put in the hours and they needed to be compensated respectfully and fairly.”
According to the memorandum of understanding between the union and the district, educators hired under these terms would be paid more accurately based on the teaching work they were currently doing and, in the case of substitutes, they would also be eligible for the health insurance while in long-term teaching positions.
The unions then wrote a joint letter to ISA and ESPI members, informing them of the vacancies and inviting them to apply.
To be eligible for the long-term internships, ISA and ESPI members had to be enrolled in an education degree program or working on their certification requirements.
“SRPs who entered teaching had years of classroom experience, which made them ideal candidates when [administration was] unable to fill vacancies with certified teachers,” said Carla Strong, president of Education Support Professionals/Ithaca. “We have many aides and assistants who have long-term goals of completing their teacher certification. I hope this opportunity will bring them closer to their goals.
Often, teacher shortages have a disproportionate impact on substitute teachers, explained ISA President Mike Yerky. Shortages lead to overruns, where a departing teacher’s classes are picked up by department teachers instead of replacing the lost teacher. This can lead to less volunteering to fill unfilled vacancies in the building and more absences related to burnout, which in both cases leads to increased demand for replacements.
Yerky called the MOA “innovative” and said it would help individual ISA members transition into higher-paying, full-time teaching positions. He warns that this agreement should not be seen as a permanent solution because of the threat it poses to pedagogical rigor. “In NYS, certification means something, and this approach essentially bypasses certification and thereby relaxes the requirements needed to teach students,” he explained.
Thirty vacancies have been filled this year through this initiative, which is going a long way in bringing schools in the district to full capacity. The district still has 20 vacancies.
Piasecki said the agreement prevents the district from having to take more drastic measures like canceling electives or dramatically increasing class sizes. The agreement also prevents attempts by the district to hire unaccredited teachers for vacant positions.
Denise Place is one of the educators hired under the new agreement. In August, she was hired as a long-term substitute reading teacher at DeWitt Middle School. Prior to this appointment, she was a teaching assistant at South Hill Elementary, where she was working towards earning her reading teacher certification. Place, an ESPI member and temporary ITA member, said the initiative makes sense because the replacements and SRPs already have experience in the district, which creates continuity for students and staff.
“Over the past two years, many of us have taken on extra responsibilities and covered for absent teachers when they couldn’t be in school,” Place said. “It seems like a win-win situation for all parties involved, as we also know the district’s goals and have earned professional development credits from the district.”
While each of the local presidents praises the MOA as a positive step, they also recognize that the issue is complex, as teacher shortages so often result in SRP and substitute shortages.
Yerky pointed out that many replacements are now being hired for extended assignments, which further reduces the pool of replacements.
Strong acknowledged that the shortage creates problems for SRPs, as the district fills vacant SRPs with replacements at a higher rate of pay than existing SRPs. “It’s a cyclical process that keeps shifting difficulties from one area to another,” Strong explained.
The fundamental problem, all agreed, was the adequate remuneration of educators.
“We have struggled with our administration and our board for over a decade now to make our base salary competitive,” Piasecki said. Ithaca teachers do not have a ladder structure, so they are forced to settle contracts to receive raises, a situation that weakens them when insurance costs rise. “Without a settlement, without staggering, we are forced to work then the following year under our previous salary and when the insurance rates go up, then we earn even less,” he said.
And without a competitive salary, it’s hard to attract new talent.
To make matters worse, Ithaca is a thriving college town where the cost of living far exceeds the salaries of local teachers, Piasecki said. According to a recent survey, more than 40% of Ithaca staff do not live in Ithaca, where the median rent for a one-bedroom property is $1,523 per month.
“A base salary below $50,000 isn’t going to attract people to a high-cost community,” Piasecki said.