November 10, 2022

Ithaca unions work to address teacher shortage in contract negotiations

Author: Molly Belmont
Source:  NYSUT Communications
ithaca teachers association
Caption: “[Substitute teachers are] doing the hours and they needed to be compensated respectfully and fairly,” said Adam Piasecki (center), president of the Ithaca Teachers Association and lead on the initiative. Photo provided.

In Ithaca, three locals are working together to make sure the teacher shortage doesn’t short teachers.

Over the summer, presidents of the Ithaca Teachers Association, Ithaca Substitutes Association (ISA), and the Education Support Professionals/Ithaca (ESPI) joined forces to negotiate pay increases and new benefits for substitute teachers and school-related professionals who are serving in long-term teaching positions in Ithaca City School District.

“I negotiated a base salary for them that was less than the salary of a certified teacher, but with the concept that they are doing teacher’s work,” said Adam Piasecki, president of the Ithaca Teachers Association and lead on the initiative. “They’re doing the hours and they needed to be compensated respectfully and fairly.”

According to the memorandum of agreement between the union and the district, educators hired under these terms would be paid based more squarely on the teaching work they were now doing, and, in the case of substitutes, they would also be eligible for health insurance while in long-term teaching positions.

The unions then wrote a joint letter to ISA and ESPI members, informing them of the vacancies and inviting them to apply.

To qualify for the long-term placements, ISA and ESPI members had to be enrolled in a program that led to an education degree or working on their certification requirements.

“The SRP's that stepped into teaching roles came with years of experience in a classroom setting, which made them ideal candidates when [administration was] unable to fill the vacancies with certified teachers,” said Carla Strong, president of Education Support Professionals/Ithaca. “We have many Aides and Assistants who have long-term goals of completing their teacher certification. It is my hope that this opportunity will bring them closer to their goals.”

Often, teacher shortages disproportionately impact substitute teachers, explained Mike Yerky, president of the ISA. Shortages cause overages, where classes of a leaving teacher get picked up by department teachers instead of replacing the lost teacher. This can lead to less volunteering to fill unfilled absences in the building and more burnout-related absences, which in both cases, leads to increased demand for substitutes.

Yerky praised the MOA as “innovative” and said it will help individual ISA members transition into better paying full-time teaching positions. He cautions that this agreement should not be viewed as a permanent solution because of the threat it poses to educational rigor. “In NYS, certification means something, and this approach is essentially bypassing certification and thereby relaxing requirements needed to teach students,” he explained.

Thirty vacancies were filled this year because of the initiative, which goes a long way toward bringing the district’s schools up to full capacity. The district still has 20 posts that need to be filled.

Piasecki said the agreement prevents the district from having to take more drastic steps like cancelling electives or dramatically increasing class sizes. The accord also heads off the district’s attempts to hire uncredentialed teachers for the vacancies.

Denise Place is one of the educators hired under the new agreement. In August, she was hired as a long-term substitute reading teacher at DeWitt Middle School. Prior to this appointment, she was a TA at South Hill Elementary, where she was working toward her reading teacher credentials. Place, a member of the ESPI and temporary member of the ITA, said the initiative makes sense because substitutes and SRPs already have in-district experience, which creates continuity for students and staff.

“During the last couple of years, many of us took on added responsibilities and covered for absent teachers when they couldn't be at school,” Place said. “It seems a win-win for all concerned since we are also familiar with the district's goals and have earned professional development credits from the district.”

While each of the local presidents laud the MOA as a positive step, they also acknowledge that the issue is complex, because teacher shortages so often result in SRP and substitute shortages.

Yerky pointed out that many substitutes are now being hired for extended assignments, making the pool of substitutes even smaller.

Strong acknowledged that the shortage creates issues for SRPs, because the district is filling SRP vacancies with substitutes at a greater rate of pay than existing SRPs. “It is a cyclical process that continues to shift hardships from one area to another,” Strong explained.

The root problem, all agreed, was adequate pay for educators.

“We’ve been struggling with our administration and board for well over a decade now to get our base salary to be competitive,” Piasecki said. Ithaca teachers do not have a step structure, so they are forced to settle contracts to receive increases, a situation that puts them on weaker footing when insurance costs increase. “Without a settlement, without a step schedule, we are forced to then work the following year under our previous salary and when the insurance rates go up, we then make even less,” he said.

And without a competitive salary, it’s hard to attract new talent.

To make matters worse, Ithaca is a prosperous college town where the cost of living far outstrips local teacher salaries, Piasecki said. According to a recent survey, more than 40 percent of Ithaca staff don’t live in Ithaca, where the median rent for a one-bedroom property is $1,523 a month.

“A base salary of less than $50,000 is not going to draw people into a high-cost community,” Piasecki said.