TUSD to start school year short of teachers, but with more security on campuses
Schools in the Tucson Unified School District will start the year in need of more than 120 teachers, and security will be tighter for visitors on campus, Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said Wednesday.
Classes start for TUSD on August 4, just two weeks away, and the district will begin the year with a shortage of full-time teachers, substitutes, teacher assistants, special education staff and bus drivers, Trujillo said.
TUSD has 126 teacher vacancies, but hires will “trickle in” during the school year, Trujillo said at a back-to-school press conference. The district is starting the academic year with 2,750 teachers but expects to consolidate classes, ask current teachers to help out and look to long-term subs to fill the gap.
The district has 300 substitute teachers registered and ready to work, Trujillo said, but that pool of substitutes “diminished” from the 800 that the district had before the coronavirus pandemic and “the competition is fierce” for more.
The district is also in need of 52 special education teachers, the superintendent said, and another 55 bus drivers to open as many bus routes as are needed. The new minimum wage for the district's employees will be $15 an hour, which will mean a raise for the 740 TUSD employees who have been paid the district minimum, such as special ed aides and custodians.
Campuses will also have a “COVID restriction feel,” Trujillo said, as the district tries to upgrade school security in the wake of “large-scale disturbances,” such as a brawl at Tucson High School and the Uvalde massacre.
More spending will go to schools that need to upgrade their fencing, surveillance and the locks around their campuses before the school year starts, Trujillo said. The district will also start off the year with six new armed security officers roving campuses.
The TUSD Governing Board has one special meeting left, on July 26, before classes start in the biggest school district in Southern Arizona.
The strategy for dealing with the shortage of teachers at TUSD starts with deciding how many of the vacant positions need to be filled, Trujillo said.
The superintendent and his staff will use enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year to find teacher openings that can be closed by moving students to other classes and going above the classroom capacities.
“In some cases, the enrollment does not justify the position, so we’ll be able to close the teacher vacancy with no harm to kids,” Trujillo said. “There are no students in the classroom, no one’s been hired. We can just quietly get the vacancy off the books.”
The majority of the 126 vacant teaching positions will “sadly” need to be filled, Trujillo said. Still, the district plans to prioritize this “equalization” strategy, as Trujillo called it, in the last couple of weeks before class.
Another idea that floated before the TUSD Governing Board last week was hiring virtual math teachers through a Chicago-based online instruction company, Elevate K-12. Trujillo called it “nobody’s preferred solution,” but it could save the district almost $1 million and work as a temporary fix for the 24 math teacher vacancies in the district.
The teacher shortage at TUSD is “more pronounced” in middle and high school math classes, Trujillo told the Governing Board last week, and said on Wednesday that “we’re working creatively” to solve the issue without “burning teachers out or assigning them extra classes.”
The Tucson Education Association, the local teacher’s union, has an agreement with TUSD saying that teachers are entitled to extra pay if their class size is above a negotiated capacity, which varies by grade level. However, giving “over-cap” payments “is not a territory we want to be in,” Trujillo said.
The agreed capacity for TUSD kindergarten class is 25. As an example, Trujillo mentioned that one TUSD school has 54 kindergarteners in total but only two kindergarten teachers with one vacancy for the role. The district will close the vacancy and create two classes of 27 kids instead, Trujillo said, explaining the equalization strategy.
“We try to hit those (agreed capacities),” Trujillo said. “For the first time, they may have 25, 26 kids in a room, and that’s not going to feel good for those teachers.”
Last school year, TUSD teachers were asked to give up their “prep hours,” or the valuable time that middle and high school teachers use to plan classes for the day, and help with classes that were missing a full-time teacher. The district has since learned that this leads to teacher burnout, Trujillo told the Governing Board last week.
Unfortunately for many teachers, TUSD is going to rely on “internal coverage” to fill vacancies again, though Trujillo said he wants to “minimize” it this time around.
Full-time TUSD teachers may be asked to cover sections of classes that need a helping hand after a substitute has been assigned.
At the elementary school-level, the district could merge classes from two different grades in extreme circumstances. They’ve done this before in the past by combining first and second grade classes, Trujillo said, but “we certainly don’t want to make that the norm.”
“I’m very realistic about the likelihood that we’re going to be starting the school year with basically the same number of vacancies that we have now (126),” Trujillo said.
Equalizing class sizes could bring the number down to 100 by the time school year starts, Trujillo said, but the district is going to rely on internal coverage and hiring long-term substitutes “to get everything covered” once the school year starts.
The district will try to hire on a daily basis to fill the vacancies as soon as possible, Trujillo said.
Where’s my sub?
TUSD has 300 substitute teachers registered to work in case a teacher needs time off, and the district “continue(s) to bring in new subs everyday,” Trujillo said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the district had between 700-800 substitutes ready to work on any given day, but now, TUSD is “quite a ways away from getting back to those pre-pandemic numbers.”
The number of registered substitutes was “significantly diminished and continued to go down throughout last year despite wage increases,” Trujillo said.
Hiring “long-term” substitutes is part of TUSD's strategy to fill teacher vacancies once the new school year starts. The district expects to rely on hiring substitutes for a semester or two until teachers are hired, but the competition for those long-term substitutes is “fierce,” as Trujillo described it.
“Long-term subs have at least two or three principals competing for their commitment,” he said. “We get a good, healthy chunk of vacancies covered with the use of long-term subs willing to take the position for at least a year.”
Bus drivers and special ed
TUSD needs 200 bus drivers to “maintain that level of service that we were able to offer pre-pandemic,” but they’re still 55 drivers short, Trujillo said.
Fewer drivers means fewer stops, Trujillo said. This year, the district has fewer bus routes running, he said, which in turn means that affected families have to travel further to get another bus stop or drop their kid off at school.
School safety departments pick bus stops based on nearby traffic patterns, closeness to major streets, intersections and thoroughfares, presence of registered sex offenders in the area, homeless activity and trends in crime, Trujillo said.
The district started last school year in need of 85 bus drivers, which Trujillo calles “a better spot” for the district.
TUSD Exceptional Education, which is their special education program, has a similar shortage of 52 teacher vacancies, which aren’t included in the 126 total.
Filling all 52 vacancies would “be ideal for us,” Trujillo said, but the district will look at enrollment and “consolidate classrooms” in the special education program ahead of the school year as well.
Security on campus
The TUSD Governing Board voted 3-2 last month to hire six more armed guards, in a decision that came three weeks after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. TUSD is the only district in Arizona with an armed school security force.
It won’t be the only measure of added security that the district takes heading into the new school year as Trujillo promised more “strict” procedures for campus visitors “in the face of the increased wave of violence that has been playing out across the nation and particularly and shockingly in Uvalde.”
Parents and other visitors can expect “very strict check-in procedures” at schools, “strict designation places where they’ll have to check-in” and “visits will largely be supervised,” Trujillo said.
Some visitors can also expect to be “escorted from place to place” depending on the reason for their visit.
The district wants “to maintain the spirit of being welcomed” despite the new measures, “but also we have this responsibility to to be security-minded,” Trujillo said.
While the Uvalde massacre is a clear reason for these added measures, Trujillo also pointed to “very, very public campus disturbance and large-scale fight that took place at Tucson High School.” A father and a student were arrested at the high school in early May after they caused a brawl with other students.
New visitor check-in procedure isn’t “going to be as stringent as it was during COVID, when nobody was able to come in without an appointment, but it’s going to have that COVID restriction feel,” Trujillo said.
TUSD operations and security officials are also reviewing the safety of each campus in the district, Trujillo said, with an eye on the quality of their “fencing, gates, doors, locks” and “keyless entry systems,” or electronic locks.
The district-wide safety assessment will go before the Governing Board to decide how much to spend on upgrading campus security, but “obviously, we’re not going to be able to pay for the entire district,” Trujillo said.
Campuses without fencing around them “will be at the top of the list” to get money from the upcoming security spending, he said. The next priorities are campuses that don’t have camera surveillance around them and then schools that don’t have keyless entry systems.
About 740 TUSD employees can expect their wages to go up with the start of the new school year as well after the TUSD Governing Board increased the district minimum wage to $15 an hour last week.
After the state Legislature passed the K-12 budget, the Governing Board decided TUSD had enough money to bump the wages of those workers, including campus security monitors and custodians, who were making between $13.50 to $14.90 an hour.
“The emergency that is inflation, the rising cost of food and gas, rent and just the daily cost of living was such an urgent need for the district’s lowest compensated employees,” Trujillo said. “We had to move immediately.”
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.