Schools hire private staffing firm to find substitute teachers

Some administrators and union officials say only school personnel should find subs

Nationwide, 10 percent of some 2.75 million permanent teachers are absent on any given day for professional or personal reasons, according to Utah State University’s Substitute Teaching Institute. Finding competent substitute teachers to fill those absences has proved difficult for school administrators. Some schools are using temporary staffing firms to lighten their loads and find the best subs.

In December 2002 then-Gov. John Engler signed a bill permitting schools to use private staffing firms to find qualified substitute teachers, a job handled solely by the schools themselves before the law was passed.

Prior to enactment of the law, firms like Troy-based Kelly Services, a temporary employment firm, offered Michigan schools a limited menu of substitute staffing, amounting to scheduling and recruiting but not actual hiring of staff. After the law’s enactment, the company formed Kelly Educational Staffing, which is the first private-sector firm to provide substitute teachers nationwide.

In fact, the company’s reach is now international, including schools not just in the United States, but in the United Kingdom, yielding a grand total of 1,400 worldwide. Forty-one of the schools are in Michigan, located in Detroit, Inkster, Algonac, New Haven and Port Huron, according to company figures.

The 2002 substitute teacher bill required contracting companies to perform criminal background and certification checks on new hires. “Because our expertise is staffing, we can find and manage more eligible candidates than schools can alone,” Robert Doetsch, Public Relation manager for Kelly Educational Services, told MER. “We meet or exceed state employment requirements” for substitute teachers, he added.

Kelly does more than provide school districts with substitutes; it also pays the requisite payroll taxes and unemployment and worker’s compensation. It attempts to lure superior teachers by providing them with extras that substitutes do not usually receive, such as a 401(k) program, weekly pay with direct deposit, and access to health benefits. The company notes that its substitutes receive “the prevailing wage in the school or district” where they work.

In Kelly’s orientation program, its substitutes receive handbooks produced by the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University. Doetsch claims that continual surveys of permanent teachers and administrators indicate a 99 percent satisfaction rating for the performance of Kelly substitute teachers.

Doetsch says Kelly’s substitute teachers receive greater benefit under the program as well, because they have more assurance of employment from Kelly’s large customer base. Substitutes may get to select where they work, and they are also eligible for non-teaching jobs during summer months or off periods, if they desire. Kelly says these features combine to attract more highly qualified substitute teachers for schools.

While the 2002 substitute teacher bill did not require schools to use outside firms, some school officials as well as school employee unions opposed the bill, and with it the ability of any school to use a firm. “We have good success with subs in our own system,” Susan Tinney of the Ingham Intermediate School District told the Lansing State Journal while the bill was under deliberation.

The state and national school employees’ unions remain at odds with contracting out for substitute teachers. When a bill similar to the one that passed was referred to the Michigan House Committee on Education in 2000, it garnered no votes. In a 2001 newsletter, the Michigan Education Association reported that “No action on [that] bill was taken by the House Committee on Education because of the telephone calls and e-mails from MEA members opposing the legislation.”

Schools that take referrals from Kelly must enter into a contract with the agency as well as pay an administrative fee for each substitute that Kelly locates for them. And schools may not always realize a direct dollar cost savings from the program, though it can free resources spent seeking and maintaining a ready pool of qualified substitutes. Kim Osborne, another spokesperson for Kelly, told the Detroit News that “Initially, it will cost the districts more. But in the long run, they will see savings.”

But Bill Foster, Assistant Superintendent of Algonac Community Schools, said that the cost of using Kelly Services to provide substitute teachers “has been a wash.” “But the rate that they have been able to fill substitute positions has been much higher than we were able to do it before. And it has allowed our personnel to concentrate on doing the job of educating children.”