Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Brunswick schools address EC teacher assistant shortage, consider reducing bus driving requirement

Brunswick County Schools voted to increase its contract with ProCare to hire more exceptional children’s teacher assistants. (Port City Daily/file)

BOLIVIA – For Brunswick County Schools, hiring exceptional children’s teacher assistants hasn’t been easy.

According to the district, it allocates for a total of 91 EC teacher assistant positions, including three acquired through a specialized contract with Lindley Habilitation Services, a staffing agency located in Wilmington. Roughly 63% of the positions are currently filled.

School board members voted on an item Aug. 1 that would help enlist more employees. They unanimously approved a one-year contract with ProCare Therapy not to exceed $250,000. The funding will staff speech language pathologists and exceptional children’s teaching assistants. 

The staffing agency based out of Georgia specializes in providing nurses, special education teachers, psychologists, sign language interpreters and occupational therapists for schools.

Brunswick County Schools first contracted with ProCare in July 2022 to fill vacancies for speech language pathologists and assistants the district was unable to bring in internally. Aug. 1’s vote was to increase the contract amount with ProCare; it was contracted previously not to exceed $100,000.

Under the terms of the contract for 2023-2024, the ProCare contract will allow the district to fill eight positions retroactively from Aug. 1 to June 30, 2024. Each employee will have to go through mandated background checks through the state’s sex-offender registry at ProCare’s expense, and the checks must be done within 30 days of the agreement, prior to any contact with students.

As of July 25, the district had 32 exceptional children’s teacher assistant positions available. However, those jobs remain open primarily because of the requirement the candidate must be certified to drive a bus.

According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, to be able to legally drive a school bus, a person must complete a three-day course with behind-the-wheel and written skills training, and pass with a score of at least 80% or better to earn his or her commercial driver’s license. Brunswick County Schools covers the costs, including permitting, $68, the NCDOT physical, $65, and the license, $90. 

Gordon Burnette, Brunswick County Schools chief communications officer, said the expenses are not a problem for the district. 

“The TAs stay on their regular teacher assistant pay scale for the three-day class,” he added. 

The real issue is prospective applicants don’t want to drive a bus, he indicated. 

“We are considering reducing the bus driving requirement for EC TAs,” Burdette said. 

All TAs sign a dual-employment agreement to drive a school bus — licensed within 180 days of hire — for their respective schools, as needed.

According to Brunswick County Schools’ past agendas, a policy requiring TAs to also drive school buses was adopted in May 2017 as a result of a driver shortage; employees hired before 2015 were exempt. In August 2019, the policy was revised to include all TAs, regardless of hire date.

The district ran a cost analysis on how much new EC assistants would cost per hour with benefits for the upcoming school year and determined it would run on average $31.11 an hour. However, Burnette said the district expects the number to increase once the General Assembly ratifies a new budget for the upcoming fiscal year; in it are proposed salary increases for teachers and support staff.

According to the contract, EC teaching assistants will be paid $32 per hour. Burnette said a difference of just 89 cents from the cost analysis for teaching assistants is negligible and the contract is another appropriate staffing option.

“It’s a little bit of a premium, but it can be reduced so there’s not that much between contracting them and staffing your own,” Brunswick County Schools chief human resources officer Stephen Foster told the board members at last week’s meeting.

Foster said the district will continue to recruit the remaining open positions for EC teacher assistants throughout the school year.

“We’ve got four or five who are ready to go now, if we are able to complete the contract,” Foster told the board.

Speech pathologists and speech language pathologist assistants will be compensated based on years of experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of a speech language pathologist ranges from $38 to $56 an hour.


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