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Wake County still needs 400 teachers. What does that mean for other NC schools?

Elementary students wait to exit their school bus before school starts for the day.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

With school starting in less than two weeks, some of the largest and highest-paying North Carolina school districts are reporting they still have hundreds of unfilled teaching and staff positions.

Wake County Public School System held a press event this week where administrators released the district’s vacancies as of last week: 401 teachers, 192 instructional assistants, 266 bus drivers and 99 child nutrition staff.

While those figures may sound high, Wake County Schools has filled almost 97% of its teaching positions, said the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources A.J. Muttillo.

The district’s vacancy rate is less than 1 percentage point higher than the previous year.

“We know for us even one vacancy means a classroom without a teacher or critical support staff,” Muttillo said.

Muttillo says that’s why Wake County Schools is still working to hire teachers, and is acting on about 50 hiring recommendations each day as the school year rapidly approaches.

“While we're still hiring folks, it is more challenging to hire these days than it has been in prior years,” Muttillo said.

Josh Sullivan

He said the burden on the district’s human resources department has changed “drastically” because of an increase in resignations during the pandemic.

Wake County Schools has not released its teacher turnover rate, but administrators at Durham Public Schools and Cumberland County Schools estimate those districts lost about 1 in 5 teachers last school year.

In the race to fill so many empty teachers' desks across the state, other schools may simply be out of qualified candidates. Superintendent Michael Sasscer of rural Edenton-Chowan Schoolstold WUNC earlier this month that the district no longer has any candidates for its six vacancies due to competition with larger, wealthier districts.

The National Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the country, announced this week thatU.S. schools have an estimated 300,000 teaching and staff vacancies.

What vacancies mean for students and teachers left behind

Schools without qualified teachers in classroom positions might rely on long-term substitutes or candidates who are still fulfilling their licensing requirements to lead classrooms.

“But [schools] can only pull out so many band-aids before it really is a detriment to our students in our classrooms across the state,” said the North Carolina Association of Educators’ President Tamika Walker Kelly.

Walker Kelly says schools managed vacancies last year by increasing class sizes, asking teachers to sacrifice planning time to cover classes, and in some cases, by having teachers remotely teach classes in other schools that lacked a certified teacher.

“When teachers are normally meeting in their classroom, but now they're having classes in an auditorium or a gym, because their class sizes have ballooned from 20 plus to even 40 plus — those are real things,” Walker Kelly said. “Those are real challenges that keep us from giving our students the top-tier instruction that they deserve.”

“Our teacher vacancies show us that many of our teachers have been forced out of the profession because of the conditions,” Walker Kelly said.

Teaching vacancies are typical in NC, but appear to be rising

Teaching vacancies are not unusual in North Carolina. Last school year, the Department of Public Instruction counted 3,218 teaching vacancies across public schools in the state on the 40th day of school.

What appears to be changing, is that an ongoing teacher shortage is hitting some higher-paying school districts harder than usual. That does not bode well for less wealthy school districts that regularly go without the number of qualified teachers they are allotted in the state budget.

Rural and less wealthy school districts compete with higher-paying districts for teachers — now from a dwindling pool of candidates.

The North Carolina School Superintendents Association is currently collecting data on teacher and staff vacancies from its members. NCSSA’s executive director Jack Hoke is in touch with superintendents across the state.

“In the process of collecting that [data] in the early trends, it certainly looks like there's going to be a significant number of more vacancies than we had last year,” Hoke said.

Last school year, Anson, Bladen, Person and Vance County Schools, and Thomasville City Schools, had the highest vacancy rates in the state. Each district was above a 12% vacancy rate, meaning more than 1 in 10 teaching positions did not have a certified teacher well into the school year.

North Carolina school districts are not required to report vacancies to state education officials until several months into the school year. But with talk of a looming teacher shortage heavy in the air, some districts have shared their current vacancy counts with reporters.

WFAE reports Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has 341 teacher vacancies. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has 99 vacancies for certified positions, including teachers, librarians and counselors. Durham Public Schools has 270 vacancies for certified positions and 73 for support staff. Johnston County Schools has 115 vacancies for certified positions, and 199 for support staff.

graphic of teacher vacancy rates over time in Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Johnston County Schools
Jason deBruyn

Along with Wake County Schools, those are among the 11 highest-paying school districts in the state. All paid a higher local salary supplement than the state average in 2021. That local contribution is in addition to the base salary teachers receive from the state that makes up the majority of their pay.

“If you're talking about Chapel Hill, and you're talking about Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and their vacancies are high, higher than they have been, and the supplements that are offered are much higher than our rural districts, then the trend would seem to me that the vacancies in the rural districts will also trend very high,” Hoke said.

The Wake County School board voted this week to raise its local pay for teachers again by an average of 4% and increased its minimum pay for staff to $16 an hour. Last year, the district had the second highest local salary supplement in the state, only trailing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools by an average of $8 per teacher.

“Raises are continuing to increase for staff and it's a good next step,” Muttillo said.

Two weeks from now, the state Supreme Court will hear the Leandro case — a landmark education funding case — to decide whether it can order the North Carolina General Assembly to increase funding to support public schools.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org