Kyrene School District’s

With their 4-year-old daughter Abery joining in, Andrew Dunkleberger hugged his wife Megan Dunkleberger, a teacher at Kyrene del Cielo in Chandler, after she was surprised last week with a $2,000 check from Staples. In addition, the school received another $3,000 in gift cards to support other classrooms as part of Staples’ nationwide #ThankATeacher contest. Megan  Dunkelberger is one of 20 educators from around the country to receive this award. Parent Erin O’Grady nominated her, telling Staples, “Mrs. Dunkelberger is an amazing teacher who went above and beyond throughout this pandemic school year. She worked to teach her kindergarten class how to use Zoom, with an immense amount of patience and kindness, while also preparing adorable take-home notebooks and art supplies for class projects.”

Kyrene School District is grappling with the same shortage of job applicants that many businesses are facing.

Shortages are impacting the district in almost every conceivable way as it struggles with scores of vacancies at almost every job level – certified substitutes, instructional assistants, bus drivers, crossing guards, lunchroom aides and front office support. 

“These positions are critical to helping our students and our schools succeed,” Superintendent Laura Toenjes told the Kyrene Governing Board last week in what she termed a call to the community at large.

Many of the available jobs are ideal for retirees, high school and college students seeking part-time gigs and even people who might be looking for some benefits, Toenjes said.

“What I want the public to hear is that in many of these roles, the hours are very flexible,” she told the community while addressing the board. “And if your child attends one of our schools, it’s very likely that you could be placed at your child’s school, which is really exciting and another unique opportunity.

“If you have experience in multiple areas, what Talent Management can do is work with you. If you want more hours and benefits are important, even though the job of say, lunch duty, might only be 10 hours a week, we can piece together other positions … to be able to get people to 30 hours, which means you're then benefit-eligible.”

The vacancies are doing far more than creating havoc for already stretched teachers, administrators and other district employees who are struggling to cover the responsibilities left untended by the empty positions.

They also impact many of the district’s 13,000-plus students in one way or the other.

For example, Toenjes told AFN in a subsequent interview last week that more than 700 kids are on waiting lists for after-school programs – programs that not only give children constructive enrichment activities while their parents are working but also bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

“That to me is alarming because that time is almost as critical as during the day,” she said. “What are they doing in those hours outside of school time, especially when parents aren’t available to be home with them? That worries me.”

She stressed that the Kyrene Foundation has been able to step in and help find other programs that the kids can be part of – though that doesn’t help the cash-strapped district, which relies heavily on its after-school program enrollment.

The vacancies have created a concern at a time when Kyrene should be celebrating the fact that so many children have returned to in-classroom instruction – which Toenjes said has been her top priority.

“I think it’s hopeful that many families wanted to come back,” she said. “It’s just very unfortunate we don’t have the staff.”

Among the vacancies that have been the most problematic are substitute teaching positions.

With the ranks of substitute teachers already thinned by concerns spawned by the pandemic, school districts are fiercely competing for those who are left. Many districts, including Kyrene, raised their pay to more than $100 a day in an effort to attract qualified personnel.

Still, Toenjes said, “If I was to quantify this, I would say on average we're seeing about 10 to 15 unfilled classrooms a day across the district. Mondays and Fridays are always worse. Those tend to be higher absence days for staff and that’s unfilled teaching positions.”

Pre-pandemic, covering those teacher-less classrooms was easier. But now, particularly in elementary schools, the task is much harder because of the need to maintain social distancing among students.

“We’re trying to keep the mixing of children down as much as we possibly can,” Toenjes explained. “So what that looks like now is you’ve got assistant principals teaching, you’ve got principals teaching. We also have deployed district staff. 

“We have a plan right now in place where everybody that’s certified from a coordinator level is assigned to sites to go out and help on Mondays and Fridays. Then we also have a second layer if that’s not enough support. Then it really goes down to directors, possibly executive directors – myself – anybody who is certified could potentially end up in a classroom.”

Bus drivers have not been as critically needed in Kyrene as they have been in many other nearby districts, Toenjes said, because fewer students’ parents are opting for buses.

Crossing guard positions, however, are critically needed as are classroom and lunchtime aides of every description.

Many of those vacancies also eat into the little time teachers already have for planning – or even a quick break.

Toenjes sees no easy answer to the job vacancy problem – particularly because Kyrene isn’t just competing with other districts but with places like Target, Starbucks and other retailers that pay a higher hourly wage.

“It’s a supply-and-demand thing and right now, the supply’s not there,” Toenjes said. “But it’s also a financial thing.”

“When private enterprise is able to raise those rates for hourly employees…that’s more challenging for us to do. So, we’re trying to get out the word that you get to work with children. I mean, the work you do in a school district is so meaningful…We have a lot to offer, but that base pay is getting very competitive.”

 

For people looking to explore Kyrene’s job opportunities, the district’s Talent Management page is the place to start. Go to kyrene.org/Page/905. 

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