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Apple and stack of books

Granville Superintendent of Schools Thomas McGurl cast a very wide net to find a librarian.

“One is coming to us from Nevada. That gives us an example for how far you have to look,” he said.

School districts are having difficulty finding teachers for specific subject areas, which also include special education, technology and the sciences. However, there does not appear to be a widespread teacher shortage in this region.

McGurl attributes the difficulty in finding people for these specialty areas to the Great Recession, which took place about eight years ago. During that time, school districts cut positions in areas such as technology.

“It was a natural reaction. People didn’t go into those fields,” he said.

SUNY Oswego, which is one of the few schools that has a technology certification in an education degree, saw seven people graduate with that concentration this year, according to McGurl. All of them had jobs before they even graduated.

He encourages students to pursue those in-demand fields of expertise.

“Sciences, library media, technology — you can write your own ticket,” he said.

Sixty-two percent of superintendents surveyed locally said they had difficulty finding science teachers, according to a New York State School Boards Association report released in May. The figures are 53 percent for special education, 44 percent for English language learners, 41 percent for math and 38 percent for technology. The association studied different areas of the state, and these responses came from superintendents in Warren, Washington, Saratoga, Schenectady, Albany, Rensselaer and Columbia counties.

The organization believes much of the issue stems from the fact that education schools continue to produce too many elementary education teachers, according to Paul Heiser, senior research analyst for the association.

During the 2012-13 school year, colleges produced a supply of 6,119 new elementary teachers, but there were only 2,470 openings, according to the report.

Heiser said the association does not believe the shortage is as severe as some have made it out to be, saying there were similar shortages in these subject areas five and 10 years ago.

One recommendation is to have teacher unions agree to pay teachers more in those difficult-to-fill subjects, according to Heiser.

“Teachers unions tend to be resistant to that,” he said. “They would rather pay teachers of the same seniority and same number of years of experience the same amount. That’s kind of a tough nut to crack.”

Heiser said another idea is to place education students in the classrooms of those high-demand fields during their student-teaching experience.

Widespread shortage may be on horizon

New York State United Teachers is more concerned about a looming teacher shortage. The union cites the fact that more than 50,000 active teachers are older than 55, according to the 2016 report of the New York State teachers Retirement System. The agency projects that more than one-third of the nearly 270,000 active members could retire.

“New York has a highly experienced teacher force and about a third of the state’s teachers are at or approaching retirement age, so New York is going to have to fill tens of thousands of open positions in the next decade,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn.

In this area, the average age of a Warren County teacher is 45.29, which is older than the 43.72 for Saratoga County and 42.48 for Washington County, according to New York State Education Department data.

The union is particularly concerned that there are not as many young teachers taking the place of retirees. Enrollment in teacher education programs decreased by almost half, from more than 79,000 students to 40,000, in 2014-15.

Korn attributes the decline in people going into education to people’s attitudes about teachers. He said one way to address the shortage is to return respect to the profession.

“For too long, teachers have had to fight to control what goes on in their classroom and suffered while those who haven’t spent any time in the classroom dictated how and what they can teach,” he said.

Korn also attributed the decline in interest in teaching to what he called the “test-and-punish” era of standardized tests. Other factors cited by the union were cuts in school funding, imposition of the tax cap, implementation of a teacher evaluation system and creation of a more difficult certification exam.

Another issue is pay, according to Korn.

“While teacher salaries in most places are fair, in many parts of the state, teachers earn far less than what other professionals earn for similar amounts of experience and education,” he said.

NYSUT is in the process of studying the issue and anticipates making specific recommendations in the next several months.

Korn agreed that there are spot shortages of teachers of foreign language, English language learners, special education, physics and chemistry.

“Rural districts seem to be having some difficulty attracting teachers in general, but specifically in those subject areas,” he said.

Plenty of applicants in general

Locally, the shortage seems to be confined to those high-demand areas.

Fort Ann Superintendent Kevin Froats said his district has not experienced many widespread shortages yet.

But “when you start talking about physics teachers, math teachers, it’s definitely a challenge,” he said.

The district often looks for people who are certified to teach in multiple areas. Starting salaries for teachers often compete with lucrative opportunities in the private sector, according to Froats.

Froats also believes the Great Recession dissuaded people from going into teaching because teachers were getting laid off and positions weren’t being filled.

Cambridge Superintendent of Schools Vincent Canini said he is feeling the effects of a shortage in other areas. He could recall at one time getting hundreds of applicants for teaching jobs.

“During the school year, we had an English (teacher) opening and we only got eight applicants,” he said.

Canini said he even has trouble filling substitute positions.

“We’re constantly short,” he said.

The Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES had a pool of about 2,000 substitutes and now they have about 1,400, according to Canini.

He said people might decide to pursue teaching once they see there is a need, but then there is a lag time for when people have to complete their degree.

“We have a couple substitutes that have decided to go back and get their degrees,” he said.

Canini said he has a veteran staff. He is not sure if they are going to retire all at once, but they will be leaving at some point.

Warrensburg Superintendent John Goralski said he believes that the shortages in those high-demand subjects, such as math and science, are going to get worse in the coming years.

“People who have strong math and science backgrounds can make a lot more money in the private sector than they can in education,” he said.

Goralski also said he has noticed a decline in interest for elementary school positions. A couple years ago, they had more than 300 applicants.

“This year, we had about 140. While that’s still plenty, you see a significant trend,” he said.

Goralski said pay is an issue. The starting salary for a Warrensburg teacher is $42,197.

In addition, teacher preparation programs throughout the state have tightened up their admission standards. The state also has revamped its certification program.

Queensbury Superintendent of Schools Douglas Huntley said he has not had trouble finding candidates for job openings. The district found people to teach chemistry and physics, which he said can be hard-to-fill positions.

Not many people applied and four people were interviewed, according to Huntley.

“The pool is small, but the candidates are strong. We’ve been really impressed with the people who have been applying,” he said.

Huntley said he believes the teacher shortage is real, but perhaps not in the Northeast. He said one reason may be there are so many teaching colleges in this area, including the University at Albany, the College of Saint Rose and Clarkson University Capital Region Campus (formerly known as Union Graduate College).

Huntley said the retirements have been fairly steady, but not in any big waves.

One factor that could be contributing to the shortage is tougher requirements to become a teacher, according to Huntley. But he also sees a plus side to that.

“It’s a little more challenging to be a teacher now. That might be one of the reasons we’re getting stronger candidates,” he said.

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You can read Michael Goot’s blog, “A Time to Learn,” at www.poststar.com or his updates on Twitter @ps_education.

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