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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 8th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 31 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 31

Santa Maria school districts grapple with an apparent substitute teacher shortage


On a recent Friday morning in the Sun office, Staff Writer Kristina Sewell’s phone was blowing up—not with calls from sports sources but with calls from two local school districts looking for substitute teachers.

“That was my mom’s school [on the phone],” Sewell told me. “They’re desperate.”

In addition to being a sports writer, Sewell is pursuing her teaching credential. She substitute teaches on the side to get more classroom experience and to supplement her income. On that particular Friday, Sewell said she received about four calls from the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District and three calls from the Santa Maria-Bonita School District asking her to sub.

“The calls usually start at about 5:45 in the morning and go on until about lunchtime,” she said of the requests she gets to sub.

According to officials from both school districts, scenarios like the one that played out in the Sun office are happening more and more often because of a dwindling sub pool.

Maribel Vargas-Meza works in the high school district’s human resources department. She said the district has been dealing with a sub shortage for several years, but it seemed to ramp up in the last year or two.

The word shortage, however, is a little misleading. Vargas-Meza explained that the substitute pool is shrinking because the high school district is competing for subs with other districts.

“It seems like the subs that we do have are either working for different districts or they’re already booked,” she said. “It used to be we had just our sub pool; now we’re sharing with other districts.”

Also, some well-liked subs end up taking long-term assignments, such as covering for a teacher who has taken maternity leave.

Sharing happens more frequently now because of the way people apply for subbing positions. In order to teach, substitutes must have a 30-day subbing permit and a TB shot. They’re also required to pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test (C-BEST), have a bachelor’s degree, and be fingerprinted by the Department of Justice.

Changes to the paperwork for getting fingerprinted allowed prospective subs to use the same prints for multiple districts, rather than pay to go through the process several times.

To address the shortage, the high school district actively recruited new subs last March using fliers and advertisements. Vargas-Meza said it’s looking like the district is back in the same boat this year because some subs got hired on as teachers, signed contracts with other districts, or moved away.

The Santa-Maria Bonita School District is facing similar challenges due to competition and the fact that officials hired 90 new teachers last year to fill positions left vacant mostly by retirements. According to district officials, most of the new teachers were working as teacher-tutors or substitutes prior to being hired full time. Now both of those pools need to be replenished.

Olivia Bolanos, the district’s director of curriculum, said the lack of qualified substitutes makes it difficult to train full-time teachers in Common Core, the new educational standards for the state of California.

“It’s extremely challenging, especially in a time that we need our teachers to have professional development,” Bolanos said, adding that there are approximately 500 to 700 teachers who need training.

She said the Santa Barbara County Office of Education has helped make training easier by letting the district send smaller groups of teachers to events. The district also makes sure that principals don’t schedule leadership training or grade-level meetings on the same days.

“And we pray that our teachers stay healthy and that their children stay healthy,” Bolanos said.

But staying healthy is often easier said than done, especially during the onset of flu season. For example, Rice Elementary School got hit hard with a flu bug three weeks ago.

The Sun’s Sewell, who works at Rice as a behavioral aide, said the school keeps track of teachers who are out for the day on a whiteboard in the staff lounge.

“I remember I went in one day and there were about four or five teachers out,” she said.

Santa Maria-Bonita officials accept sub applications on an ongoing basis and hold interviews every week.

“[Subbing] is a great way to get your foot in the door and to get your abilities known by the principal and other teachers,” district spokesperson Maggie White said.

“Of course, we’re not taking just any old warm body,” White said, adding that Human Resources weeds out the subs who don’t get asked back to teach. “The need is great, but we’re not going to lower our standards because we believe every school day is important.”

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at

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