New Jersey school staff shortage is making teacher vacancies worse

A shortage of support staff is exacerbating a continual teacher shortage in the Garden State.

Students at Cherry Hill High School East staged a sit-in Monday morning in support of teacher Timothy Locke.

File photo: A school bus passes by Cherry Hill High School East in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

There will be enough people in place when Cherry Hill Public Schools open the 2022-2023 school year next week.

“We cannot wait for [students] to get back into the buildings,” said superintendent Dr. Joe Meloche, who adds that staff will return on Thursday. “You can feel the excitement when we’re getting people together in groups to be able to welcome the children back into our schools.”

Meloche adds they are still struggling to find teachers to teach in specialty areas, like world languages, math, and science. School districts across the country, including in New Jersey, are grappling with a shortage of educators.

But school districts are also experiencing vacancies in other areas.

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In addition to teachers, Meloche, who is entering his eighth year leading the district, said he is also looking for people to fill support positions; cleaners, custodians, educational assistants, and food service.

“We have jobs that are posted. We have interviews ready to go,” he said. “We are definitely looking for some good people to come work with us in Cherry Hill.”

Similar situations are playing out across the state. In Trenton, city officials announced a shortage of 30 crossing guards. A proposal is before the city council to boost their pay in hopes of enticing applicants for the split-shift positions.

“We see less and less people right now in our transportation areas [or] our cafeteria lines or in any of the other positions that really service our students and our schools,” said Sean Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. “We are at a crisis point.”

Spiller said that there has been a decline in people applying to work in schools overall, which “stresses the system immensely.”

“We’re going into this school year [and,] once again, we’ve got colleagues who know that they’re going to be pulled out of their preparation periods [or] asked to miss lunch to cover classes to try and get kids what they need.”

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What was once a seasonal cycle to recruit educators has become year-round, according to Todd Lawrence, owner and co-founder of NJ School Jobs, a job posting website for public, private, parochial, and charter schools.

“School districts used to be able to rev up their spring recruiting season, plan for the retirements, hire those new kids coming out of college and then they were kind of staffed for the next year, ready to go if there might have been an opening that occurred over the summer,” he said. “But now it just appears that it’s a constant need for filling the vacancies.”

Lawrence said his site has just more than 5,000 current openings from support staff positions – like secretaries and custodians – through superintendents. Most of the openings are teaching vacancies. He adds that he has seen “a significant increase” in the number of openings in the last couple of years, noting the more political atmosphere in education that has coincided with the pandemic.

“Teachers [had] to become the mask police,” Lawrence said, referring to a statewide school mask mandate Gov. Phil Murphy adopted for part of the previous year. The recently retired physical education teacher offered his own story of being confronted by a parent for enforcing the order.

“I was like, ‘I’m not in charge, I didn’t make the mask mandate; I just have to follow it and put it into place here inside the school building,’” he said.

A trend prior to the pandemic

Both Lawrence and Spiller say the attack on educators, at least in New Jersey, began more than a decade ago when then-Gov. Chris Christie took regular verbal aim at teachers and the NJEA.

“You can’t bash people politically … for 10 straight years and expect people to want to become part of that profession,” Lawrence said.

Spiller credited the former governor for being “ahead of the group in terms of the attack on public workers, but specifically public education.”

“His challenge there was to try and demean the profession,” he said. “The first thing he did coming in office was tell people, ‘vote down your school board budgets, don’t support your schools, don’t fund school.’”

New advocacy groups have been created in New Jersey and around the country seeking to elect more conservative candidates to school boards, though the elections are technically nonpartisan and typically sleepy races. It’s an outgrowth of more parents getting involved with board meetings as discussions shifted to masking and vaccines.

“You can’t miss the fact that these meetings are more contentious now,” Spiller said. “You can’t miss the fact that you have some individuals that get a small number coming in and calling out educators by name and saying they’re being nefarious or calling them slanderous things.”

Filling the gaps

Superintendent Meloche, in Cherry Hill, said the pool of teaching candidates has become shallow in the last couple of years.

“There are fewer students going into the field of education right now at the collegiate level,” he said.

The number of teacher candidates went below 3,000 in 2018, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a level not seen in two decades. In addition, colleges and universities in the state are producing far fewer educators compared to the rest of the country.

The state Board of Education recently held a public meeting to consider several proposals to make it easier to become a teacher in the Garden State, including substituting test requirements with more rigorous monitoring.

There was also an effort in the last session of the Legislature to remove teachers from a residency requirement that was passed in 2011 for public workers.

Lawrence said doing away with the residency requirement would be “easy” in order to hire teachers.

“I graduated high school from Philipsburg, New Jersey, which is in northwest Jersey,” he said, noting that the town “is basically a stone’s throw from Easton, Pennsylvania. “You get across the river and you can’t hire someone who lives in Easton right on Front Street…unless they move across. What if they were a Spanish teacher, for example.”

Overall, Lawrence believes there should be an initiative on the state level to make the profession attractive to potential candidates, especially minority candidates.

Spiller says the NJEA is in conversation with people in education to come up with ideas to incentivize people to become teachers, and stay in the profession.

“I think we’re hearing a lot of creative ideas,” Spiller said. ”We’ve got many talking about, ‘hey, can we offer bonuses to get people to come in,’” as one example.

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