With depleted staffs, tighter budgets and higher expenses on the horizon, school districts across Florida are exploring new ways to pay an essential part of their workforce: substitute teachers.
Among the major considerations is the Affordable Care Act, which requires large employers to offer health insurance when employees work a certain number of hours.
Some districts have responded by saying they will limit substitutes' hours and spread the work over a larger pool of subs. But, increasingly, districts are outsourcing their entire substitute operations to staffing agencies.
The strategy creates a big new expense and delegates a key task to an outside office. But many districts say there are net financial and educational gains. And they like not having to recruit, train, maintain substitute pools or worry about Obamacare.
"There's a lot of nuances associated with running a good sub program," said Christine Pejot, director of human resources in Pasco County. "To keep it in house, it requires a lot of time and energy to manage it."
In the Tampa Bay area, only the Hernando County school system is on the cusp of the outsourcing option. Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough are dealing with the issue in other ways.
Substitutes are a vital part of any school system, representing about 7 percent of the K-12 teaching workforce nationally, according to the Labor Department.
Next month, the Hernando School Board will vote on a plan to outsource its system for assigning and paying substitutes — an option district officials say will be less costly than covering health insurance for some subs.
Officials say the district would need to cough up about $700,000 next year to offer health insurance to the roughly 100 substitutes who meet the criteria, said Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services. Outsourcing would cost the district about $465,000 above what it currently spends on subs, she said.
Martin and Pejot said many districts are moving toward the outsourcing option.
"It's a culmination of issues," Pejot said. "I think the (Affordable Care Act) is what puts it over the edge for many districts."
Hernando officials also say outsourcing companies, with larger staffs dedicated to a single task, are better at filling classrooms with subs. That leaves fewer classrooms uncovered, a big carrot for many districts.
When a school can't get enough subs, it leads to disruptions, requiring classes to merge or administrators to fill in.
Hernando is currently able to cover about 90 percent of classrooms when teachers are absent, meaning 10 percent of the time classrooms go unfilled. One staffing agency being considered by the district boasts "fill rates" in the high 90s. At a recent School Board work session on the issue, it was unclear whether outsourcing would change pay rates for the district's substitute teachers.
Pay for subs did not change at Polk County schools when they began outsourcing this month. A big consideration was being able to cover more classes, said Martin G. Young, the district's personnel director.
In Polk's first week using Michigan-based Kelly Educational Staffing, its fill rate increased to about 94 percent, a jump of about 10 percentage points.
Kelly boasts a fill rate of over 98 percent nationally, and serves its Florida districts with a scheduling team based in Orlando. The company has an automated system for requesting subs, as well as staffers who personally handle last-minute situations.
Young said budget cuts had reduced the staff in charge of Polk's substitutes and their jobs were getting harder. "It has been a huge challenge over the years," he said.
He said the new costs associated with Obamacare also factored into the decision.
School districts in Orange, Duval and Clay counties have decided to outsource substitutes. Others, including Sumter County, are looking at the option.
Another alternative is to limit substitute hours, preventing them from working enough to be eligible for benefits.
Martin said that would create a number of issues in Hernando, including making it more difficult to find substitutes. "I don't think that's in the best interest of our students," she said.
School officials in Pasco and Pinellas counties say they will be able to minimize new health care costs by monitoring hours. But Pasco assistant superintendent Ray Gadd acknowledged it could be a double-edge sword.
"If you're short on subs, then what do you do?" he asked. The district will continue to consider outsourcing as an alternative, he said.
Hillsborough has discussed outsourcing, but isn't anywhere near changing, said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty. He said the district considered it as a way to improve fill rates, not because of Obamacare.
"Sometimes it's hard to get subs," Hegarty said. "That's more the issue for us."
Pinellas officials believe they can manage substitute hours and come up with something that is cheaper than outsourcing. One big reason: The district has bolstered its substitute pool from 900 at the start of the year to about 1,500.
The district increased advertising and held out the promise of earning up to $130 a day, said human resources director Ron Ciranna.
He said Pinellas is able to find a sub, on average, upward of 90 percent of the time — an improvement of about 10 points.
"You have to have a big pool of quality subs," he said. "We've really been building on that this year."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.