Michigan Schools Rely on Software to Find Substitute Teachers

The state uses private contractors to fill the demand for thousands of substitutes every day, and software has taken the headache out of the problem. However, unions oppose privatizing the hiring process.

by John Wisely, Detroit Free Press / March 19, 2019
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(TNS) — Jayne Polaski likes teaching on her own terms, which means choosing her days, and her school, before she heads to work.

"I like subbing. I like the versatility of it," said Polaski of St. Clair Township. "I like being independent of the school."

Polaski works as a substitute teacher at Landmark Academy, a charter school in Kimball Township west of Port Huron, but her employer is Kelly Educational Staffing, a division of Troy-based temp agency Kelly Services.

Polaski is one of thousands of substitutes who work in Michigan schools every day but aren't employed by a district. They face the same requirements as traditional subs, including education, fingerprinting and background checks; but they are hired, managed, assigned and paid by private companies.

Those companies have leveraged technology to revolutionize the way the schools fill in for teachers who are out sick or spending the day in professional development.

Almost all districts in Michigan now use private companies to provide their substitute teachers, though a few, including Detroit, still do it in-house. The districts that use them say the vendors save them not only money, but also the administrative headaches of scrambling for a sub before the school bell rings. Pay rates vary by school district but subs typically make between $80 and $110 a day.

Teachers unions oppose the practice, saying the private companies are unnecessary middlemen and the subs lack workplace protections provided to full-time teachers. Years ago, districts kept a list of subs and called them as needed.

"The district knew those subs, many of them were retired teachers," said David Crim of the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. "It was a much more personal and informed decision about who to place in that classroom on that day. With these companies, now it's computerized and impersonal. There's a name that will pop up in a data bank when someone requests a sub."

The industry got a scare in October when a sub provider, Professional Educational Services Group (PESG), abruptly closed its doors after experiencing money troubles. But the state's largest sub provider, Edustaff, picked up most of that business within a week and transitioned smoothly, said Edustaff president Clark Galloway.

Competitors and state educational officials, say the PESG case was isolated and as a general rule, the practice of privatizing substitute teachers works well.

"We've never had a complaint that someone is doing something shady," said Leah Breen, director of the office of educator excellence at the Michigan Department of Education.

James Homan, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank that advocates privatization, said districts have ultimate control through their contracts with the private companies.

"If there were huge problems, I doubt that schools would be using contractors for this service," he said, adding: "It is a competitive industry."

Retirement costs

Objections notwithstanding, the practice appears to be here to stay, in large part because it saves money. Savings vary by district, but all the district contacted by the Free Press say it is cheaper.

The biggest difference, districts say, is in the money they must pay into the teacher retirement system. When subs are employed by the district itself, the district must make payments into the state's retirement system for teachers, which can add 30 percent or more to cost of their wages.

"The retirement burden would be the main driver of the decision to outsource," said Nick Brandon of the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools. "We save about 36 percent in retirement and FICA costs."

Brandon said his district began outsourcing its substitute ranks in 2007-08. It currently contracts with Edustaff, the Grand Rapids-based firm that supplies subs to districts across the state. He said the district has had good experience with it, noting there are other benefits to using private contractors.

"You get their support and their technology and both of those things are vital when you need to find sub teacher in the wee hours of the morning," Brandon said.

Chippewa Valley Schools in Macomb County also use Edustaff as well and they estimate their savings at about 15 percent of what it would cost to handle the subs in-house, according to Adam Blanchard, assistant superintendent for human resources.

"That's about $300,000 to $400,000 a year," Blanchard said.

He said that because Edustaff handles all the recruiting and hiring and the associated paperwork, it has also cut down the amount of personnel he needs to administer the substitute program.

"Instead of having three people to handle that process, I have one person in the district to make sure that sub calling happens," Blanchard said. "We don't have to have multiple people taking care of that process."

Growing industry

Those kinds of administrative efficiencies are another big reason to hire a staffing firm, said Nicola Soares, manager director Kelly Educational Staffing, part of Troy-based Kelly Services.

"When you really start to work with our clients, it's all the hidden costs that people don't account for," Soares said, saying things like recruiting and supporting subs and administering programs. "Outsourcing a substitute teacher is a cost savings over time."

Her company has been providing temps to offices since 1946 and launched its substitute teacher business in 1997. The company now serves 10,000 schools in 35 states, she said.

Kelly reported a 9-percent increase in revenue from educational staffing in the fourth quarter of 2018, according a company earnings call.

"As a segment, it is the fastest growing segment on the board," Soares said.

Edustaff formed in 2010 and has grown rapidly in Michigan and eight other states, Galloway said. The company now services about 450 of Michigan's roughly 550 school districts, he said.

The company has used technology to streamline the recruitment and training of subs. It uses online courses to train subs on topics like blood-born pathogens and student privacy before face-to-face training begins.

Subs receive classroom tryouts in their training that exposes them to things like special education students they may encounter in their work.

"We have ongoing training that's all computerized," Galloway said. "These are just things that districts are not equipped to do do on a technology level."

The company also uses technology to communicate with its pool of teachers to alert them to positions that need filling. Subs in the system can sign up for text messages, emails, phone calls, including automated phone calls, to let them know about openings, which they can accept or reject.

"To tell you that it works, we're in year No. 10 and we've never lost a client," Galloway said.

He acknowledged that the closure of PESG did give the industry a black eye, but said his company helped mitigate the damage by scrambling to fill in. He and others at his company were working through the night after the closure to get those teachers, and the districts they serve, on board.

Dearborn Public Schools was one district that was left scrambling when PESG closed. The district had used the company for about 10 years, but had to hire those teachers temporarily once it was gone.

"It took some time, we had to get all the people that we we're using as substitutes who were signed up with PESG," said spokesman David Mustonen. "We signed them up as employees with our district."

In January, Dearborn signed up with Edustaff and things have gone well so far, Mustonen said.

In-house subs

Some districts including the state's largest, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, still put substitutes on the payroll.

When Nikolai Vitti came in as superintendent in 2017, he wanted to keep the subs in-house, said spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.

"He had a goal to insure that we hire directly," Wilson said. "He believes that when you hire directly there are people who really care about the community, who take ownership of the work, who are invested. Someone who is contract, they don't know the district, the schools, the classrooms."

Wilson said Detroit uses between 150 and 200 subs per day and is able to fill about 95 percent of its opening for long-term subs. Short-term openings, like when the regular teacher calls in sick, are tougher to fill and she said the district fills about 60 percent of those.

It does have provisions in its union contracts so other teachers in the building can work their prep hours covering a class where a teacher is out for the day. The teacher who works through their prep hour is paid extra under the contract, she said.

But for Polaski, she prefers not being directly connected to a district. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and worked in mental health for years. After her husband died, she wanted to work part-time and Kelly Educational Staffing has worked well for her.

"It's especially good for young people who want to get their foot in the door, but it's also good for people like me," she said.

She acknowledges that the pay isn't the best and she doesn't get paid for snow days the way full-time teachers do. But that's not why she does it.

"The pay isn't a lot but the reward is being with the kids," she said.

©2019 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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