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The Daily Tar Heel

Orange County Schools vacancies decreasing, but still impact students

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Justin Seifts, the recipient of the 2022 Reckford Teaching Prize Reckford teaching, teaches Spanish at East Chapel Hill High School on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.

In Nicole Lester’s 19 years of teaching, the 2023-24 school year has been her most exhausting.

Until mid-October, she was A.L. Stanback Middle School’s only Exceptional Children teacher, where she works with 27 studentssome of whom are nonverbal, have epilepsy or struggle with aggressive behavior. Lester said her workload should have been split between three teachers, rather than one.

“It drains all of your energy from you,” Lester said.

According to the district’s recent Human Capital Recruitment and Retention Update, the number of vacancies on the first and 40th days of school decreased by 29 percent and 35.6 percent, respectively, from the 2022-23 school year to the 2023-24 school year. 

The district also reported 114 new hires across teaching and administrative roles, bolstered by recruitment strategies that include referral bonuses, alternative licensure support and student-teacher partnerships with local colleges.

Anne Purcell, the Orange County Board of Education chair, said the central office releases an intent form for teachers to indicate if they will return next school year, which gives the district a better idea about which teachers are coming back.

She also said the upcoming job fair at Cedar Ridge High School is an opportunity for prospective teachers to learn about job openings and interview with administrators. The district hired six teachers from the job fair last year alone.

But, there were still 38 reported vacancies during the 2023-24 school year.

Purcell said there are many better-paying professions that have attracted people that otherwise would have been teachers.

“We just are not competitive, and we have to be to have good teachers,” she said.

Christina Clark, the president of the Orange County Association of Educators and an English teacher at Cedar Ridge High School, said during the pandemic teachers received “coverage pay.”

They received a stipend of $60 a day provided for teachers who acted as substitutes during their planning period. Now, she said, the district no longer provides the stipends.

Lester said even as the district has increased sign-on bonuses, existing teachers are not paid a retention bonus and, thus, there is no incentive to remain in the OCS system. 

“If you’re staying put in one district, you’re basically getting slapped in the face,” Lester said.

Purcell said OCS does not have the financial capacity to offer retention bonuses. According to a 2023 Education Law Center report, North Carolina is ranked last in the country for school funding effort.

“The state has got to come through and give more money for teachers,” Purcell said.

Clark said when she’s made offhand comments about leaving her position as a teacher, she can tell it causes her students anxiety.

Without a permanent instructor, students are more likely to just complete their tasks rather than engage with classmates and teachers, she said.

“Everybody suffers when there isn’t a certified teacher in the room,” Clark said. “There’s some loss of care as well.”

Lester said the OCS Central Office should offer more support to help teachers like her manage their classrooms.

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What is more important than keeping the children safe?” she said. 

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