Hellgate Elementary lures fill-in teachers with more payAs a substitute teacher, Tiffany Wardell has always followed her own unwritten rule each morning of promising her services to the first school that calls.
But these days, when the telephone rings after 6 a.m., Wardell can hardly be blamed for hoping that someone from Hellgate Elementary School is on the other end of the line.
"Whoever calls first is where I go. I still go where I'm guaranteed money," said Wardell, who has subbed for more than two years. "But I do prefer that the call come from Hellgate."
Hellgate's increased popularity among members of Missoula's substitute teacher pool can be attributed to a recent school board decision to raise the district's daily rate of pay from $50 to $75. Most other districts in western Montana still pay about $50 per day.
Hellgate Superintendent Craig Brewington said the pay increase was deemed necessary to fill out Hellgate's shrinking substitute teacher list.
"We had to raise it because we were having to call sick teachers back to tell them they had to come to work because we couldn't find subs," Brewington said.
Five years ago, Brewington said Hellgate Elementary had a substitute teacher pool of between 100 to 150 people. But by the beginning of the current school year, the pool had dwindled to a list of about 30 names.
"We told the board about the awkward situation of calling sick teachers back," Brewington said. "The board members said that was ridiculous. They immediately raised it to $75."
Brewington said the Hellgate district ran one advertisement in the newspaper saying applications were being taken for substitute teachers at a rate of $75 per day. To apply, candidates were required to hold a college degree, preferably in education.
Response to the ad immediately doubled Hellgate's sub pool to about 60 people, Brewington said. He expects more people to express an interest in Hellgate as word of the pay increase spreads.
"We got some subs from other districts and some new people who have not subbed before," Brewington said. "The $75 seemed to be attractive because we're getting some good people."
Lara Henderson said she was a substitute last year, but abandoned teaching this year in order to wait tables.
"I could do another job and make more money doing something I was not trained to do," said Henderson, who holds a degree in education and is seeking a full-time teaching job.
But when she heard about the pay increase at Hellgate, Henderson said she put her name back on the substitute list.
"I learned about the pay increase and decided to come back," Henderson said. "It's more worthwhile now."
However, Henderson, who also subbed in the Missoula County Public Schools District last year, said she no longer works in any district but Hellgate.
Mark Walton, the MCPS personnel director, said he expects other substitutes will also give Hellgate top priority.
"I expect Hellgate Elementary will fill their batch first," Walton said.
Walton said as long as Hellgate is the only district offering higher pay, it shouldn't have a huge impact on MCPS, which typically calls on between 40 to 100 substitute teachers per day. But if other districts follow suit as rumored, Walton said a large district such as MCPS could run into problems.
"At this time it's had a minimal effect," Walton said. "But I expect as time goes by, it will have an ever-increasing impact. … And if everybody else goes up, subs will say yes to them rather than us."
Walton said he has already asked the MCPS Board for permission to raise the pay rate for substitute teachers next year from $51 per day to $65.
"We haven't moved the level up in the past six years and we're losing access to a quality pool of substitute applicants to other types of work," Walton said.
Aside from competing with higher-paying districts, Walton said there are just not as many qualified people willing to substitute teach as there used to be.
"Our ability to only pay per day is such that people are taking lower wage jobs outside of substituting because it's steady," Walton said. "To get $5.75 per h
our, 40 hours per week is better than substituting twice a week at $51 a day."
The number of available substitute teachers has also decreased in recent years at Lolo School, where subs also are paid $51 per day, according to Superintendent Elmer Myers.
"Our subs have gone down, but I'm not completely sure it's because of salary," Myers said. "I'm not sure that the numbers are there anymore."
Myers said the Hellgate increase hasn't had much of an effect on Lolo School, because most of the school's subs come from Lolo or the Bitterroot Valley. But if other schools raise their rates, Myers said Lolo could have more problems because of the district's tight financial situation.
"We haven't talked about raising our rates," Myers said. "We might look at next year's budget, but our available dollars are really limited. And if we do go up, I can't imagine going up to $75 a day."
Bob Waugh, who taught 11 years at Woodman School before retiring, said it's about time school districts raised the rate of pay for substitute teachers.
"After the years I've put in teaching, I know what a substitute has to do," Waugh said. "They have all the extra duties a teacher has. I know many people feel a substitute is just a baby sitter. But that's not true anymore. … Subs are there the same amount of time a teacher is there."
Waugh said he had been subbing in other school districts until he saw the ad listing the Hellgate pay increase.
"I saw the ad for Hellgate and it really surprised me," Waugh said. "So I signed up and went to work right away."
Waugh said he believes the investment Hellgate is making in substitute teachers will pay off in the long run.
"What they're going to get is a better quality of substitute teacher," he said. "Good teachers will just want to sub at Hellgate and stop subbing at every other school."