Should Hillsborough keep hiring a firm to recruit substitute teachers?

Outsourcing saves money, but School Board members wonder if there are other costs.
Hillsborough County School Board Member Karen Perez has suggested the district return to the practice of hiring its own substitute teachers. The district has a contract with Kelly Educational Staffing to provide substitutes.
Hillsborough County School Board Member Karen Perez has suggested the district return to the practice of hiring its own substitute teachers. The district has a contract with Kelly Educational Staffing to provide substitutes. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 18, 2021|Updated May 18, 2021

Hillsborough County School District leaders made a strong case for continuing to outsource substitute teaching on Tuesday morning, despite concerns raised by School Board member Karen Perez and others.

Perez, troubled by the prospect of district teachers losing their jobs because of budget cuts, first suggested bringing the service back in house several weeks ago.

“We did it before,” Perez said at Tuesday’s board workshop. “I felt that we can do it again. And I think we owe it to this district, to the teachers, and frankly to our students.”

Substitutes have been provided since 2014 by Kelly Educational Staffing at an average yearly cost of about $15 million.

Hourly rates vary, depending on qualifications and assignment. At the lower end, it hovers around the state’s minimum wage of $8.56 an hour. More typically, the teachers earn about $12 an hour.

The company takes care of recruitment, training and benefits. District leaders say the company effectively works as a recruiting source as well, with many substitutes going on to become district teachers. “Since 2014, we have hired 1,899 teachers into the district through Kelly Services,” said Marie Whelan, the district’s chief of human capital.

A major factor in the decision is the class coverage rate, known as the “fill rate.” Those numbers are better now than before outsourcing began.

But Perez said the rates are lower at the district’s high-poverty schools, where teachers wind up picking up extra classes during their planning periods.

Perez also spoke about issues raised in a 2018 Tampa Bay Times investigative report about inappropriate substitute behavior — including theft, verbal abuse of children and sleeping on the job — that teachers described on “Do Not Use” reports to the company.

Related: Napping, name-calling and stealing: Who's subbing for your kids' teachers in Hillsborough?

The Times also found teachers who had been chased out of the district, because of alleged misconduct or their inability to pass credentialing exams, returned as Kelly substitutes. In some cases, the teachers returned to the same schools and classrooms.

The company has maintained consistently that there are relatively few incidents of misconduct when compared to the vast numbers of shifts they fill every year. Data released Tuesday at the School Board workshop show there are fewer than 200 incidents per year out of about 150,000 shifts.

District leaders said since the Times published its report, they have tightened their system of alerts to prevent teachers from returning if they left the district because of misconduct.

Whelan said about 75 percent of the substitute teachers hold bachelor’s degrees. “They’re degreed professionals and they have often been in other career fields,” she said.

But some have only a high school diploma and board member Stacy Hahn said, “that’s a low bar. That’s not the caliber of teacher we want in front of our students.”

Board member Melissa Snively suggested that, to reduce the need for substitutes, the district should examine the mental and physical stress on its teachers. “What are we doing to support our teachers,” she asked, “so they will be 110 percent well in front of our children and our classrooms, every single day?”

Board member Jessica Vaughn, who worked as a substitute teacher before and after the outsourcing began, called for more on-the-job training. “No disrespect to Kelly,” she said, “but I had a much better experience when I worked through the county.”

Others, including board chair Lynn Gray, suggested that the district monitor its high-needs schools more closely and perhaps make sure each one can have a full-time substitute assigned to the building.

No decision was made on Tuesday.

Cheryl Courier, southeastern vice president for the staffing company, acknowledged the past year has been difficult. Often, she said, Kelly substitutes are retirees, which means they felt especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“We literally had to replace pools all over the country,” Courier said.

She added that the teachers are returning now that they have their vaccines.