Author: Christine Pitawanich (KGW)
SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — Another school year is right around the corner and districts are continuing to think up ways to recruit and retain staff. State lawmakers are trying to help.
Last December KGW spoke to Oregon State Senator, Michael Dembrow, about a new legislative workgroup he was putting together that would focus on coming up with ways to address the staffing shortages in districts across the state.
As the new school year approaches, Dembrow shared with KGW what progress the group has made.
School staffing shortages are nothing new, but the pandemic made it more difficult for districts to recruit and retain employees, from teachers, to special education staff and bus drivers.
“We started working on it right away and started forming workgroups to look at it in the short term, the medium term, the long term,” said Dembrow, who represents parts of northeast and southeast Portland. He also chairs the Senate’s education committee.
The workgroup he put together last year is made up of teachers, parents, administrators, legislators from both sides of the aisle, those in higher education and others in the world of education. They’re all dedicated to solving school staffing shortages but are split into three groups focused on different issues: compensation, recruitment and the teacher pipeline, as well as retention and working conditions.
The collective group has made progress. Dembrow said legislation passed in the short session accomplished several things, among them, more funding for schools.
“[We] were able to allocate $78 million to go out to the different districts for short-term strategies, that is strategies that would be of use this coming school year to retain teachers, to recruit teachers,” said Dembrow.
He said a grant program was also available that would give districts more money to pay for things like more substitutes, so teachers could have more time to plan and collaborate. Districts had to submit proposals for the $78 million and grant money. Once approved, districts received dollars based on enrollment.
Other short-term progress includes making it easier to get a teaching license.
“I mean, not in terms of the standards, but in terms of streamlining the process, giving the Teacher Standards Practices Commission (TSPC), which oversees licensure, some more staff to be able to help people navigate through the process,” Dembrow said.
One large area of need is positions in special education. The workgroup is looking at ways to draw more people to the profession and retain them.
“It’s a profession that’s underpaid and it’s not always clear what their career ladder is […] so we are looking at different creative programs.”
Dembrow said there are discussions happening with the Bureau of Labor and Industries as well as other educator preparation programs to develop what are often called, ‘grow your own’ programs. These types of programs help people in the community start on the path to become a teacher.
He said underway right now is a partnership between the TSPC and the University of Oregon to research staffing levels statewide.
“One of the challenges we have here in Oregon is we’re very much a local control state. We have 197 different school districts and the state as a whole doesn’t really have a clear sense of what the staffing needs are on the ground at the individual levels,” said Dembrow.
The hope is the data from the research will help inform legislation Dembrow plans to introduce in the next legislative session that starts in February.
School staffing shortages are not just an Oregon problem, it’s something districts are dealing with across the country.
If legislation is passed it will allow Oregon to join a national licensure group that would make it easier for teachers who are moving from out of state to get a new license to teach.
He said the workgroup is also working on creating a single application form for anyone in the state who wants to become a teacher, rather than having to start a brand new application for each district.
“The front door will be the same for all of them,” said Dembrow.