LAND O'LAKES — Low pay may be keeping substitute teachers away from many Pasco County schools.
Robert Bates thinks so.
A retired Air Force veteran, Bates regularly has substituted over 30 years wherever he lived, including nearly a decade in Pinellas County. He said it keeps him young.
When Bates moved to Pasco County last fall, though, he didn't sign up.
"I decided with the pay it wasn't something I wanted to jump into," said Bates, 70.
Pasco pays subs $55 to $75 a day, with the highest amount for former Pasco teachers only. Bates, who has a master's degree, would get $65 a day, less taxes.
He recently suggested to superintendent Kurt Browning via email that those low wages are key to the district's difficulties filling its substitute needs. Several county schools had more than 20 percent of their positions go unfilled daily during the past year.
This problem has Pasco officials searching for answers. It recently revived a dormant committee to lead the effort.
Wages are part of the mix.
"We are looking at the pay, but obviously, the pay is tied to the budget," said Kevin Shibley, executive director for administration. "It's one piece. It's tough."
The committee plans to look at information from all angles, human resources supervisor Lydia Ray said. Those include training, recruiting and treatment of subs at the school level, as well as making comparisons with other district practices.
The Hernando district, for instance, has outsourced management of its substitute system. That's something Pasco has explored and dismissed as too expensive, Ray said. Pinellas schools pay more and also recently held an awards ceremony recognizing its subs, while Hillsborough schools have a similar pay scale and fill rate to Pasco.
Assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said Pasco is looking at the other districts because it wants to compete with them for the best available substitutes.
"We want to make sure, as we pull teachers for training and professional development for the transition (to new standards), we don't want kids to miss instructional time," Larson said.
School Board members say they want the same result. They did not commit to any specific action, though, noting they had barely begun budget planning for 2014-15.
"We need to have good, solid substitutes," chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. "I trust the committee to come up with good information."
Lawmakers increased the district's revenue for the year, giving the board some flexibility in setting its priorities. But, as board member Allen Altman noted, "We have issues in several areas."
Full-time teachers want higher salaries, for example. The district needs to find a way to slow the revolving door on its bus driver crew. And Browning has spoken of beefing up the ranks of counselors and other support areas.
That could make raises for substitutes tough to do, said board member Cynthia Armstrong, who sits on the district committee. She did not see that as a critical concern.
"In just talking to substitute teachers that I know … it doesn't seem like pay is the major issue, although that's always a factor," Armstrong said. "It's more about how they are supported in the schools."
She suggested the district needs to find ways to make subs feel more a part of the school staff, including more input from principals. Subs should not feel like they're just babysitting, Armstrong said, but rather a vital part of the education system.
"I definitely think we can work on the culture in the schools," she said. "That is something that doesn't take money. It just takes effort and deliberate action."
Bates said he hopes the district acts soon.
"I shouldn't even have to write a letter," he said. "It should be so plain."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.