Classroom

Emily Archer, an Anne Arundel County special education teacher, was looking for additional income. She loved her job at Lindale Middle School and considered herself well-paid with a $65,000 salary. But she’s also a single mom dealing with “the rising cost of being alive.”

That’s what brought her to an online job posting by StaffEZ in August. The agency was hiring for special educators to do the same job she does at the same school system for nearly double the pay.

“This is a number I wouldn’t be able to earn even if I spent the rest of my career in AACPS,” she said.

The system is relying on staffing agencies to help with its vacancies, especially for special education, a critical shortage area across Maryland. Schools around the country are grappling with severe vacancies and Anne Arundel found a solution. Although working with contractors was not a new concept, teachers were in uproar.

The listing Archer came across stated contractors would receive between $95,000 to $100,000 a year and health care benefits through the staffing firm, and would provide “direct and indirect instruction to students with disabilities in-class or through virtual program.” Only a bachelor’s degree was required, while five years of teaching and three years of special education experience were preferred.

The job duties included developing Individualized Education Plans and being part of the school’s IEP team. The plans spell out what services school systems are legally required to provide to the student. Teachers questioned whether contractors would be qualified to make those decisions and take on the responsibilities that come with the plans. Students with disabilities make up about 8.6% of the Anne Arundel County schools population, according to a Maryland State Department of Education presentation showing data based on 2020-21 enrollment. There were more than 109,000 students with disabilities in Maryland schools as of that academic year, per the presentation.

Teachers were furious. They posted on social media that contractors were making more than them and held a rally to criticize the school system for not investing in its educators. The school board president and superintendent fired back by accusing the teachers of spreading misinformation and calling out union leadership, claiming they don’t want what’s best for students.

Both parties have since said they are willing to work together, and agreed on a union contract during the first week of school after choosing arbitration to resolve an impasse. However, educators are still concerned about temporary staff and question how much the school system is willing to invest in its own employees.

Back in May, the board approved a contract with multiple staffing agencies for special education and student services for $1.5 million for a three-year term. During its Aug. 24 meeting, the board approved a $7 million contract with StaffEZ to hire 50 contractors through June 30, 2025. School officials said that equates to $101 an hour at most during 7.5 hour days. On average, StaffEZ workers make $68.84 an hour, school officials said, while school system special educators make an average of $50.49.

Board president Joanna Tobin said in an interview that contractors still have to be interviewed by the system and only the most qualified will be hired. It isn’t the ideal way to hire teachers, and it’s not the only way, she said. Aside from traditional recruitment efforts, the system has recruited from Puerto Rico and worked with historically Black colleges and universities to create a student-to-teacher pipeline.

Nicole Disney-Bates, the new president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, called the contractors a temporary fix.

“It’s not something that should have been considered,” she said. “We are looking for a permanent solution.”

Some solutions, she said, are investing in the teachers who are there and finding ways to attract new ones, such as offering stipends to staff to acknowledge how much work they do.

The union held a rally in Annapolis Aug. 12 to voice their disapproval. In response, Tobin and Superintendent Mark Bedell, who was new to the job, fired back at teachers in a statement Aug. 15.

“It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the leadership of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County (TAAAC) has chosen a course of political posturing and erroneous rhetoric over the interests of some of the most vulnerable in our school system, our special education students,” the letter read.

It stated that the union’s opposition to the staffing agency is a sign to families that union leaders hold “union interests in higher regard than what is best for students.” And it accused union leadership of misstating facts.

The letter also said contract employees do not receive health care or retirement benefits from the school system or state. And those benefits “can add as much as 37 percent to an AACPS employee’s compensation package.”

“Even if I made $70,000 and factored in the percentage … I’d still be making less than some of the contractors,” Archer said.

“When you put people who don’t have the training or the background to fulfill the responsibilities that are being asked of them, that’s a problem,” said Leslie Margolis, managing attorney at Disability Rights Maryland.

However, having staffing agencies help with special education students does not automatically mean there’s a problem, she added. It could help. But contracting with people who “may not have been to an IEP meeting” is an issue.

“We always want stability but school systems have been relying on people who come and go for years,” Margolis said. “Baltimore City for years was reliant on teachers coming from the Philippines.”

Teachers often leave in their first couple years, so there’s no guarantee of stability even without the staffing agencies, she added. But staffing agencies aren’t necessarily the be-all, end-all, according to Margolis.

Disney-Bates said she wants to move forward and so do school system leaders. Tobin, the school board member, agreed.

“I feel what’s best for everyone is that we find a way to work together,” she said in an interview.

Contractors can “provide crucial relief for districts in a pinch, particularly for specialized workers,” according to Education Week. But the companies may charge “a hefty sum” sometimes for services, and contractors may not always have the same access to benefits that unionized teachers have or have the institutional knowledge of the school community, per Education Week.

During a school board meeting last month, school officials said working with staffing agencies wasn’t a new concept. The system first worked with vendors for staffing back in 2012 for positions such as speech therapists. And they’re using them now because there were 82 vacancies for special education classroom teacher positions.

“At the end of the day, we have to get these classrooms staffed,” Bedell said during the meeting last month.

According to central office staff, StaffEZ has been successful in recruiting teachers. They make between $50,000 and $100,000, and receive training from the company.

Sara Wagner, a former special education teacher, said if the school system took care of educators sooner, they wouldn’t be in this position. Now, schools are in a place where they need more teachers, counselors, behavioral teams and higher pay. It’s part of the reason why she left the profession.

Wagner, a teacher for 18 years, said while at Folger McKinsey Elementary School, she juggled covering three grade levels, special education students and tons of paperwork. She loved her job, but she said the lack of staff prevented her from giving special education students the attention they need.

A parent of one her former students said her daughter thrived before the pandemic hit. The parent did not want to be identified to protect the identity of her child. Although Wagner did the best she could when students were learning virtually, the now-fifth grader started to regress. And this year, her daughter still does not have a special education teacher, two weeks after school started.

The parent said general education teachers have been bending over backward to meet her daughter’s needs, but she’s wary about how the rest of the year will go. She believed a school official when she said only qualified candidates will be hired. And the fifth grader’s IEP is written well enough for a new teacher or contractor to follow. However, she sees the value of having an educator who is already familiar with her child and the inconvenience of adding a new teacher after the school year already started.

“Somebody is better than nobody at this point,” the parent said. “Somebody who’s qualified.”

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