Friday, October 22, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 34

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on May 30th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 13 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 13

Unexcused absences: There aren't enough substitutes locally to fill in for every absent teacher, and schools are struggling to find solutions


It’s early on a Thursday morning in May, and a group of nearly 30 eighth graders at Tommie Kunst Junior High School have already settled into their seats, pulled out their math books, and are listening to the day’s lesson. 

Anyone who has ever attended a public school already knows what the classroom looks like: dreary fluorescent lights hum overhead, posters pushing motivational mantras and basic classroom rules line the walls. Rows of tables and chairs are filled with students, who all face the front and watch their teacher, Jacques Wolf, as he draws a cube on a projector at the front of the room. 

Substitute teacher Jacques Wolf discusses surface area and volume to his first period math class at Tommie Kunst Junior High School on May 23. Wolf, who is subbing long-term for an eighth grade teacher out on maternity leave, hopes to become a full-time teacher one day.

It’s basically a clone of every other classroom in every other public school in the United States, but this one is different in a big way—Wolf isn’t really the teacher, per se, he’s a long-term substitute. 

Wolf’s subbing situation isn’t quite like the stereotypical one that comes to mind. He wasn’t called in first thing this morning to take over for a sick teacher, he won’t be in for just a day or even a week, and the students aren’t giving him a hard time or wasting the period away watching a movie. 

Wolf knows each student by name, and they’re quiet and attentive as he lays out steps for finding the surface area of the cube he’s just drawn. 

The students are even eager to answer his questions. He asks when surface area might be needed outside of the classroom, and students say they might need the equation if they ever work in construction or architecture. Wolf nods and smiles. 

“An important part of math is finding how you’ll use it in everyday life,” he tells the students. 

Wolf is confident in front of these students because he’s been their stand-in math teacher for nearly two months, and he’ll be teaching the class for the rest of the school year. 

He’s subbing long-term for a full-time teacher who is out for the semester on maternity leave, a great gig for substitutes who typically work in a location for a day or two before moving on to another. Long-term subs are paid more for each day’s work than day-to-day subs, and because many substitutes are recent college grads hoping to become credentialed teachers one day, long-term subbing provides a hands-on learning experience that’s about as similar to being a full-time teacher as it gets. 

That’s why Wolf started subbing day to day at the beginning of this school year, and that hands-on learning is why he accepted the long-term position after that. He hopes to be a math teacher some day, and he said his experience subbing this year has pretty much prepared him for everything he’ll need to know throughout his career in education. 

But substitutes like Wolf are becoming increasingly difficult for school districts in Santa Maria and across California to find. In the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, about 1 in 3 teacher absences goes unfilled by a substitute each day, according to data provided by the district. 

There simply aren’t enough subs available to fill in for every absent teacher in the district, leaving administrators with difficult choices to make and classes to cover on a daily basis. Administrators are often called in to act as temporary teachers, and on especially bad days, classes are grouped together, sometimes leaving one teacher in charge of 60 students or more. 

It’s bad for students, and district officials know it. In an attempt to address the problem, Santa Maria-Bonita launched a new subbing program last school year and recently drafted contractual details with its junior high school teachers that allow them to fill in for others during certain parts of the day. 

Both are an attempt to soften the blow caused by the lack of substitute teachers every day, and while local educators say the changes are a good start, more drastic measures need to be taken if the district wants to reach a real solution.

* * * * *

The Santa Maria-Bonita School District employs more than 760 teachers at its 20 school sites and works around roughly 360 teacher absences a week, according to data provided by the district. That’s about 72 absences on average each school day. On a good day, district officials say 20 of those 72 absences are left unfilled by a substitute teacher. On a bad day, up to 30 of those positions go unfilled. 

So it’s not easy for an administrator at any school site to find subs. Throw in a specialized program—like special needs or English as a Second Language—and things become even more complex. 

Richard Ruiz has been the principal at Roberto and Dr. Francisco Jiménez Elementary School since it opened about four years ago. With its opening, the school implemented a dual-immersion language program, where students are taught to read, write, and speak in both Spanish and English during their usual public school courses.

The aim, Ruiz said, is for all students in the program to be completely fluent in both languages when they graduate. That means teachers involved in the dual-immersion program need to be fluent, too.

Students in the dual-immersion program at Roberto and Dr. Francisco Jiménez Elementary School (pictured) are taught to read, write, and speak in both Spanish and English. Specialized programs like dual immersion find it especially difficult hiring qualified substitute teachers in times of need.

It takes more than just conversational knowledge of two languages to make the cut as a credentialed bilingual teacher, Ruiz said. Teachers in the dual-immersion program have to be able to read, write, and speak Spanish and English as if both languages are native to them, and Ruiz said substitutes are held to the same standard. 

That makes it almost impossible to find subs who can cover for dual-immersion classes, because if a sub is credentialed bilingual—a skill that is in extremely high demand—he or she will likely be picked up as a full-time teacher almost immediately. 

So teachers and administrators at Jiménez are forced to get creative. 

That includes minimizing and carefully scheduling professional development conferences, Ruiz said, events where teachers get valuable career training throughout the school year but often miss at least a day of class. Jiménez’s administrators, many who are bilingual, often end up teaching dual-immersion classes for a day, and Ruiz said he’s done so himself a number of times. 

Still, he said that’s “not at all uncommon” or unique to the dual-immersion program. 

“It’s just a little more challenging for us,” Ruiz said. 

Jose Segura is the president of the Santa Maria Elementary Education Association (SMEEA), a union that represents nearly 900 teachers. Several of those teachers are employed by the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. Segura worked for years as both a full-time teacher in the Santa Maria-Bonita district and as the president of SMEEA, but recently left the classroom to work full time for the union. 

Like many retired teachers, Segura subs a few times each month. It’s his way of continuing the work he loves, while also doing his small part to help the district with its sub shortage, a problem he said is plaguing Santa Maria’s classrooms. 

“It affects our ability to do a lot of different things,” Segura said. 

When there’s a shortage of subs, it means teachers have to make difficult decisions. Teachers come to work with infectious illnesses and miss out on important professional development trainings, and administrators either cancel district-wide meetings or have to schedule them outside of work hours. 

Training and professional development events are often scheduled with the hope that there will be plenty of subs available to fill in for the teachers, Segura said, and then they’re canceled the day before or day of when it becomes clear that isn’t the case. 

Segura said he serves on a districtwide gate advisory committee, and when the committee members met to review applications during school hours on April 17, one of the teachers in attendance had to leave midway through the meeting. An administrator who was filling in for her had another matter to attend to, and no one else was available to take her place in the classroom.

Most important is the impact that the dwindling pool of substitute teachers is having on students, Segura said. 

While administrators are typically the first line of defense when it comes to covering unfilled teacher absences, they are sometimes too busy to help out. When that happens, specialized teachers come in to save the day.  

Teachers who run intervention programs for at-risk students, programs that help students struggling with reading, and English as a Second Language courses are sometimes called in to sub for absent teachers. Then those specialized programs and services, Segura said, are canceled until the absent teachers return.  

If there aren’t any available substitutes, administrators, or specialized teachers, Segura said the district has done “crazy things,” like dividing up the students in an unfilled class and putting them in classrooms with other teachers. Those teachers then have to find space and time to teach dozens of additional students with little to no notice.  

That doesn’t happen often, Segura said, but when it does, he gets angry calls. 

When there are interruptions and inconsistencies as extreme as these, he said it truly has a negative impact on students, especially those struggling with abandonment and neglect issues at home.  

“It really comes down to student achievement,” Segura said, “and being able to adequately support our students and provide them with the best educational experience possible.” 

* * * * *

California has been entangled in a “teacher shortage” for years. While the state estimates that more than 20,000 new teacher hires are needed annually, only about 11,500 new teaching credentials have been issued each year since the 2013–14 school year, according to the California Teachers Association

Daily vacancies
The Santa Maria-Bonita School District employs more than 760 teachers at its 20 school sites and works around roughly 360 teacher absences a week, according to data provided by the district. That’s about 72 absences on average each school day. On a good day, district officials say 20 of those absences are left unfilled by a substitute teacher. On a bad day, up to 30 of those positions go unfilled. That means roughly 25 of the district’s 72 absences are left unfilled by subs each day, or about 1 in 3.

That became an issue sometime around 2007, Segura said, when the nation’s economy went into a recession, forcing school districts to cut costs. Teachers were laid off, class sizes increased, programs were cut, and suddenly fewer teachers were needed, and education looked like a less than enticing career field for many young people. 

With the economy mostly recovered, school programs and services are growing again, Segura said, increasing the need for teachers. But many current teachers are getting close to retirement age, and few young people are entering the field. 

Though Santa Maria’s district officials say they don’t have problems finding full-time teachers to hire—teaching positions in Santa Maria pay more than many others elsewhere, and the cost of living is lower than many other parts of California—Segura says the teacher shortage is at least partially responsible for the lack of available substitutes locally. 

With a greater demand for teachers throughout the state, subs everywhere are being plucked out of the pool and hired as full-time teachers to fill empty positions. 

There are a number of other factors at play, Segura said. Subs only make about $100 a day on average, and they don’t get health or vacation benefits of any kind. Unless a substitute gets a long-term subbing position, the work, by nature, is inconsistent and unpredictable. 

Substitute teachers in California are also required to have a bachelor’s degree, which Segura said is probably the biggest hurdle for Santa Marians. Only 12.6 percent of Santa Maria residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau from 2013 to 2017. That’s below the state average and a significantly smaller number than in Santa Barbara, where about 48 percent of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, and the county as a whole, where 33 percent have bachelor’s degrees. 

The bachelor’s degree is a state requirement for subs, so Segura said it would have to be changed with the help of legislators and public officials. Outside of that broader effort, he said there aren’t many other plausible solutions. 

“I don’t really know how you make it better,” Segura said, adding that while state legislators are aware of the issue, it could take years for them to take any real action. 

Substitute teachers like Jacques Wolf are becoming increasingly difficult for schools in the Santa Maria area to find, leaving administrators with tough decisions to make.

The teachers in Segura’s union attempted to address the problem locally four years ago when they developed a list of about 16 possible measures that Santa Maria-Bonita could have implemented to ease the shortage. Only a few were seriously considered, he said, and only one, a site sub pool system for the junior high schools, was actually implemented. 

Junior high school teachers have “prep periods,” during which they have time away from teaching to grade papers and prepare lessons for upcoming classes.

In the union’s agreement with the district, teachers can volunteer to spend a prep period subbing for an absent teacher for $35 an hour. That way, one class without a substitute could be covered by several teachers throughout the day. 

It’s similar to what the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District does with its teachers, according to Matt Provost, a teacher at Ernest Righetti High School and president of the Faculty Association.

High school days move in a similar periodical format, so Provost said the Faculty Association and district have long used “in-lieu days” to help cover for absent teachers. If teachers in the high school district give up five prep periods to sub for missing teachers five times, they get one free day. 

Because teachers get several weeks off during summer break, Provost said they don’t get vacation time, and legally teachers cannot take time off during the school year to do anything other than recover from an illness or attend necessary appointments. 

Teachers can’t call in sick and go to Disneyland, he said, but they can do whatever they want with their in-lieu free days. 

“So it’s advantageous,” Provost said.

It’s still not uncommon for the high school district to struggle to find subs, and Provost said sometimes if there are three or four classes that need coverage, the district will put all of those students in the cafeteria with one teacher and a security guard.

“So kids don’t really do anything when that happens,” he said. 

But that’s a rare occurrence, possibly because the in-lieu program is popular among teachers. Provost said it has seriously helped the district mitigate the strains caused by Santa Maria’s small pool of subs. 

Elementary schools, however, can’t resort to a similar system because one teacher is with one group of students all day. So for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, which oversees Santa Maria’s elementary schools, the issue is more challenging to address. 

* * * * *

Finding adequate substitute teachers has been a problem since Patty Grady became Santa Maria-Bonita’s human resources coordinator in 2012, and it was a problem before that when she was a principal. 

Even with all the time she’s spent filling absent teaching positions, helping schedule professional development days around the already existing vacancies and limited subbing staff, Grady said she’s still not entirely sure why there are so few substitute teachers to choose from. 

Subs don’t make a lot and they don’t get benefits, she said, but the pay isn’t too bad, either. In the Santa Maria-Bonita district, substitutes are paid $110 each day for the average day-to-day assignment, $115 a day for assignments that run 10 days or longer, and $130 a day for assignments running longer than 20 days. Those covering special needs classes make $140 a day. 

But Grady doesn’t think pay is the problem. 

Some substitutes are retirees who want to get time in the classroom but with less demanding schedules, Grady said, and according to the Santa Barbara County Education Office, there are some slight obstacles there. 

Retired teachers have to wait 180 days after their retirement date before subbing, and after that, they can’t work more than 960 hours per fiscal year or it will negatively impact their pensions. 

Retirement pay, according to the Education Office, is calculated based on a teacher’s final salary, so teachers don’t want their retirement compensation to be calculated at anything less than full time. If retirees sub more than 960 hours in a fiscal year, that ends up being the number of hours for which their compensation is calculated, amounting to a lower pension than is truly deserved. 

Still, Grady doesn’t think that’s the biggest problem either because most applications she gets for subbing positions are from young people—recent college grads who need steady pay while they figure their career paths out, up-and-coming teachers who haven’t quite found a full-time job yet, or those in the midst of a career change, who want to see what teaching is like before going back to college.

The district gets plenty of interest, Grady said, which translates to roughly five to 10 applications from potential substitute teachers each month. The applications always look great, the interviews seem to go well, the district gives the applicants hiring paperwork, and sends them out to get their background checks, and after that, Grady said many applicants don’t return. 

Maybe it’s a lack of follow-through on the district’s part, she said, or maybe it’s an unwillingness on the applicants’ part to get and pay for the tuberculosis tests and fingerprinting needed before they can get into a classroom with kids. Either way, Grady said that’s where the process always seems to stall out. 

It’s difficult to solve a problem when you don’t know its cause, but Grady said Santa Maria-Bonita officials are trying. 

A while ago the school districts in Santa Barbara County banded together and developed a countywide tuberculosis and fingerprinting database, so that once a sub is cleared to enter a classroom in one school district, he or she can can sub in any other school district in the county without going through the whole clearance process again. 

Last year the district launched its “guest teacher” program, in which the district hired 20 substitutes on as full-time staff. One guest teacher is assigned to each of the district’s school sites, so that every school has at least one sub who is always available to cover an absence. The guest teachers are paid more than regular substitutes and they get benefits, which Grady said is a big bonus for many.

The district also implemented the union’s idea for in-lieu days in the junior high schools a few years ago, although Grady said many of the union’s other proposed ideas just weren’t feasible. 

The changes have helped, but not nearly enough. Grady said dozens of classes go unfilled by a substitute almost every day, and although administrators do a great job of covering for absent teachers, it’s really not what they should be spending their time on. 

When unprepared administrators and unsuspecting teachers have to cover classes, she said “it’s the kids who suffer.” 

Although Grady is retiring after this school year, she said she’s looking forward to watching how the district solves this issue. 

In mid-May, Grady said district officials met with the teachers union to make a list of priority issues. The sub shortage seemed to be on everyone’s list. The group discussed creating a committee of teachers and administrators who would work together to develop constructive ways to fix this problem locally, and Grady said she found that to be “powerful.” 

She almost wants to stick around to see it play out, because if anyone comes up with a plausible solution, Grady said it will be the teachers. 

“Teachers have the answers,” she said. “They always do.” 

Contact Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash at

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