Staff Shortage

School classroom curtesy of Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons license

School classroom curtesy of Creative Commons license.

*This article was originally published in the Snowmass Sun on Nov. 24.

Headlines nationwide report that schools are reaching a crisis point with staffing shortages as employees take on additional responsibilities and some districts face prospects of online classes or shortened school weeks. Aspen School District is feeling the strain of that drought locally, even three months into the school year, though school remains in person and five days a week here.

“[The shortage] has definitely taken its toll on the staff that I have now,” said Tenille Folk, the food service director for the district. “You know, they’re obviously worked to the max.”

Folk oversees kitchens at the elementary, middle, and high schools as well as the café in the high school. Ideally, she’d have a staff of 11. But currently, Folk has the equivalent of just 4.5 employees, including herself; in addition to her director responsibilities, she’s helping out in every kitchen and in the café. Demand is higher to boot: since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the amount of kids eating meals from the middle and high school kitchens has increased by about 50%, according to Folk.

And it isn’t just the food service department that’s feeling the stress. A report from the Aspen Education Association teachers union to the school district Board of Education earlier this month painted a stark picture: “All staff continues to be stretched to the limit because of staffing shortages. … Staff stress levels are sky-high and we cannot continue like this for the rest of the year.”

That’s not to say the district isn’t looking for solutions, according to the report and an interview with Aspen High School art teacher Stephanie Nixon, who co-leads the Aspen Education Association (often abbreviated as the AEA). The group has met with the district administration in hopes to find solutions to get more workers, Nixon said.

“(The district and AEA) have brainstormed ways to get more people to come and work for the district. We’ve talked about things like signing bonuses, longevity bonuses, or some sort of incentive,” Nixon said.

Other measures could include “more frequent ‘on-boarding’ meetings” and support systems for current staff, according to that report from the association. The AEA also encouraged the Board of Education to consider additional pay for substitute teachers and additional recruitment and retainment efforts for education support professionals.

The lack of staff creates a burden on those currently working in the district that could have long-term impacts, according to Nixon. To address urgent staffing needs, some district employees are taking on additional duties that could play into conversations about pay and compensation down the line.

“The more duties you add to somebody’s job responsibilities, it’s more work, and people sort of decide, do I want this much work for this much pay? … The long-term effects are going to be, what does the job responsibilities look like for how much we’re getting compensated for?” Nixon said.

In the meantime, some other short-term solutions aren’t perfect in the long run, Folk noted. With a full-time staff roster as low as it is in food service, the district has utilized temp companies to fill the void with workers.

“(Temp workers) are very helpful, but it also comes with its challenges regarding the level of skills, and the level of communication that we have, as well as the liability and who shows up one day, who doesn’t show up the next day,” Folk said.

The transportation department is feeling the pinch too: Currently, there are around 20 drivers, including the substitute drivers, as well as the teachers who drive for the district. Ideally, there would be 19 full-time drivers with five substitutes in case someone is sick.

That’s where Transportation Director Reghan Mahaffey comes into play, rearranging routes and scheduling drivers. It’s apparent that the district is lacking drivers, but when it comes to recruiting staff, sometimes the district gets outbid — other transportation companies in the area might be able to pay more than the district.

“There’s a lot of competition who potentially are paying more than us,” Mahaffey said. “We are limited because we are (on a) school budget, so we are looking at maybe raising our starting rate for drivers to hopefully, maybe, see that improve in applications for drivers.”

While the school may not have the largest budget for transportation staff, the district already has many incentives to attain and retain staff members by providing benefits that foster a healthy and strong community, including a $650 “Wellness Benefit” that can be used for costs like a ski pass or yoga classes, Mahaffey noted.

There’s also some freedom that comes with working only within school hours; weekends and holiday breaks are already built-in. Appreciation is another key component, Mahaffey said.

“It’s really important just to recognize the work that those drivers are doing each day: They have very long days, and they come in here, and they’re passionate about it,” Mahaffey said.