Topeka — School administrators are making tough decisions as they deal with nearly 500 teacher vacancies at the start of the new school year.
According to a Kansas Department of Education survey, there are 492 teacher positions unfilled in 125 districts, with the bulk of the openings in special education and elementary grades.
"They'll hire substitutes or combine classes," said Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner of education. "There may be some cases where classes will not be offered."
In addition, districts filled another 144 teaching positions on a temporary basis one year or less. Dennis said this was the first year the 304 districts were asked to report this figure.
The vacancies cover all disciplines, from music to math, where there are 19 openings. There also are 16 foreign language openings, which will be filled by using teachers not certified to teach language, offering the courses through the Internet or dropping them altogether.
"A lot of people are really concerned about this and worried about this," Dennis said. "It's not just compensation, it's a matter of fringe benefits and health insurance."
Christy Levings, Kansas National Education Assn. president, said that is likely to worsen as more teachers near retirement.
Levings said the challenge for districts and legislators is to provide enough resources to retain young teachers already in the profession and make a career in the classroom an attractive option.
"Parents want a quality education all the way through as their child goes through school," said Levings, noting that retirements have the potential to reduce the expertise in classrooms.
The State Board of Education members meets Tuesday afternoon to finalize its budget request to legislators for the fiscal 2003. Last month, the board gave tentative approval to a $352 million plan, the bulk of which would be dedicated to teacher salaries.
Board members indicated their desire to raise teacher salaries to the national average over a three-year period and explore the option of providing health insurance to all teachers.
The state spends more than $2.3 billion on public education. Legislators added $67 million to the school budget during the 2001 session.
House Speaker Kent Glasscock rejects the notion that an anti-education mood has settled in the Statehouse. That accusation was leveled by educators and critics who said legislators should have done more for schools.
"The issue became very emotional and very volatile," said Glasscock, R-Manhattan. "My hope is all of us have learned from the 2001 session and will approach 2002 session with a recognition that we need to work together."
House Minority Leader Jim Garner, D-Coffeyville, said a three-year plan by the board is admirable.
"If we can have a 10-year plan for highway construction in the state, which I support, then we can have a similar vision and commitment to schools and our kids' education," Garner said.