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Teacher hiring 'crisis' affecting area Minnesota schools

ADA, Minn. - Mike Kolness sees a crisis looming ahead for education, particularly in northwestern Minnesota. When the Ada-Borup School District superintendent saw a story about North Dakota failing to fill more than 200 teaching spots by using a ...

Former elementary school principal Sam Marek helps senior Ben DeMarais remove a pulley from a power steering pump as he teaches an auto mechanics class at Ada-Borup High School with a variance from the state. (Dave Wallis | The Forum)

ADA, Minn. – Mike Kolness sees a crisis looming ahead for education, particularly in northwestern Minnesota.

When the Ada-Borup School District superintendent saw a story about North Dakota failing to fill more than 200 teaching spots by using a "community experts" pilot program, he took to the Internet on Tuesday to tweet out a wake-up call.

"We (are) also seeing a huge need for teachers in rural MN and things need to change! It is becoming a crisis," he told the Twitterverse.

At Ada-Borup, Kolness said a few teachers have "variances" from the Department of Education that allow them to teach classes outside of their degree area, or other temporary licenses that let community experts teach.

"We've been talking about this for a couple of years because we're really seeing the shortage," Kolness said. "Special education is always an area of need. The vocational areas are tough. And we used to get 80 or 90 applicants for an elementary position. Last year we had 10."


He said the district used to be able to attract teachers from North Dakota and South Dakota, "and that's just not going on anymore."

It's also hard for young people coming out of college or university teacher preparation programs to pass the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Examinations, he said.

"They're tough. They're difficult," Kolness said. "It's really put a roadblock out there for some of the young people out there that want to be in the classroom."

To teach kindergarten and "to have to pass a college algebra or higher math test is something we feel is unnecessary," Kolness said.

Salaries are also too low.

"You want to attract the best and the brightest. That's difficult" due to tight budgets, he said. "To be competitive, it's getting to be more difficult, more and more difficult."

Sam Marek and Tom Sorenson are among those who have helped keep Ada-Borup class offerings on track.

Marek is a former elementary school principal who retired, then decided to return to the classroom. He has a three-year "variance" to teach small-engine and auto mechanics. He's licensed for elementary education and as a K-12 administrator. Now he's considering getting a technical education degree.


So far this year, the class has pulled an engine from a Jeep, swapped out a rear end for a Ford Mustang, fixed a transmission and got a car running that hadn't turned over in five years. Near the shop's hydraulic lift, which held up a student's truck for a water pump repair, Marek had a rusty snowmobile waiting to be restored.

"This is my first time teaching high school kids. I've really enjoyed it. They're independent, and they all still have their fingers and eyebrows," Marek joked.

Sorenson is in his second year at Ada-Borup, teaching chemistry, physics and ninth-grade physical science. He has a three-year temporary licensure as a community expert.

Sorenson has a doctorate in chemistry and taught at the University of Georgia as a graduate assistant. He's also worked in research and development at another university, and in the electronics and solar power industries.

Sorenson had been looking for a university-level job, then heard that Ada-Borup needed a teacher and emailed Kolness to ask him if he needed any help.

He teaches chemistry, college-level dual credit chemistry, physics and ninth-grade science.

"I love teaching. I love science," Sorenson said. "I get paid to sit and talk about science all day long. The biggest challenge is to remember where my brain was when I was 15."

He can also talk knowledgeably about the world of science and industry. And he's a hometown boy, having graduated from Ada High School in 1989.


"I kind of like to show the kids they can do anything they want. I did," he said.

Sorenson said it will come down to pay to get more teachers into the sciences.

"Your options when you come out of school is to be a scientist or an engineer" with salaries that quickly rise near six figures, he said, or about $30,000 a year for a starting teacher.

According to the state Education Department's 2015 "Teacher Supply and Demand" report, during the 2013-14 school year, Minnesota schools hired 3,504 teachers who lacked the necessary licenses for the subjects and grade levels taught, or about 6 percent of the total workforce.

School district hiring officers reported 11 teacher shortage areas, far and away led by specialists in emotional behavior disorders, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities and early childhood special education. They were followed by teachers for English as a Second Language, mathematics, school psychologists, Spanish, physics, developmental or adapted physical education and chemistry.

Surpluses were seen in elementary education, physical education, social studies (middle and high school) and communication arts and literature.

The report found that supply and demand indicators were conflicted. On one hand, districts and schools needed fewer special permissions than in the past. However, the percentages of districts indicating it is impossible or very difficult to hire qualified teachers to fill vacancies in hard-to-staff areas were nearly double those seen in the 2012 survey.

In addition, 63 percent of Minnesota school districts said testing either represented a small (27 percent) or a large barrier (36 percent) to hiring teachers, the report said.


Ada-Borup is not alone in scrambling to get qualified teachers.

The Moorhead School District had to get 12 variances from the Education Department this year, nine of them in special education, one for business, one for ELL and one for an elementary Spanish immersion teacher, human resources Executive Director Kristin Dehmer said in an email.

Ulen-Hitterdal School Principal Kent Henrickson said the district needed to get a variance for a chemistry teacher.

"If we see turnover in our science, or our math or our ag positions, it's going to be real hard to fill those," Henrickson said. "I don't know what the answer is. I don't know if there's that many people going into education anymore. ... It's going to be a real concern, once we get some of these teachers retiring."

"We're facing the same problems," said Mahnomen School District Superintendent Jeff Bisek, The district has filled three special education positions, two with people getting variances while they work on their special education degree, and a community expert, also working on a degree.

"We were very fortunate we had people like that in our community," Bisek said.

"Our number of candidates have been low, even for elementary positions," he said. "That used to be a pretty common license area. I'm very concerned about the future. I think it will actually get tougher."

Bisek said the Mahnomen district hired an ag teacher three years ago, "and we were lucky. I know a lot of schools are struggling. They aren't getting any applicants for those types of programs."


In Pelican Rapids, Superintendent Deb Wanek said they had to hire a community expert to fill an elementary school Title I teaching post.

In Detroit Lakes, Superintendent Doug Froke said they haven't had to bring in community experts yet. "However, that being said ... we have had to utilize variance provisions" to fill certain positions, "particularly where special education is concerned."

Froke said qualified teacher candidates for any area outside of elementary education, physical education and social studies "are very difficult" to find.

He said hiring in the past three to five years has become more competitive and his district has had to start hiring sooner.

"This ought to be an interesting hiring season," Froke said.

Lake Park-Audubon Superintendent Dale Hogie said his district has been fortunate in keeping qualified people in shortage areas, but he worries about retirements or other districts hiring away staff.

"We often struggle here in LP-A, because they (many teachers) live outside of the community. Our concern all the time is that there is a vacancy that will occur in one of those areas," Hogie said. "I know if we have retirements or resign, we'd have difficulty filling those positions."

Bryan Thygeson, superintendent for Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District, said he's also seeing fewer teacher candidates.


"We've had middle-school math and science openings," he said. "We've had special education openings. And we've been able to get some good, quality candidates."

Thygeson said the pool of teachers is constantly shrinking.

"You're competing with various schools for the same candidates," he said. "We are all interviewing the same people because there are just not that many candidates out there."

He said something will have to be done to lure good potential math and science teachers back to the profession.

"This is going to be an ongoing problem. There's no way around it. I think all of us as district administrators are running comparisons on our compensation packages," Thygeson said. "When you know that you're competing with neighbors for the same candidates, you have take a close look at where your pay is at and what your benefits are in comparison to your neighbors, because it may be the difference on where they go for hiring."

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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