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OPS on hiring push for classified staff; special education teacher vacancies still an issue

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Principal Thomas Lee speaks about the opening of the new Westview High School.

The Omaha school district is still experiencing a staff shortage for the 2022-23 school year and the majority of open positions are classified employees.

With only two weeks of summer left, Omaha Public Schools officials said the district is focusing on recruiting a variety of support staff because most certified positions have been filled.

Charles Wakefield, chief operations officer for OPS, said at Monday’s school board meeting that the district has filled 76% to 86% of classified staff positions depending on the job, which includes school-based staff, nutrition services, custodians, bus drivers and more. About 96% of certified positions have been filled, which includes teachers and staff with certificates.

The push to hire follows an ongoing staffing shortage that has also affected schools around the Omaha metro area. Wakefield said the district has done a lot of work, but it still has a ways to go to fill jobs.

“There is progress over where we were two months ago. This is because our staff has stepped up,” Wakefield said. “We have asked staff to go back to the classrooms and asked staff in some aspects to do more.”

The district has 20 schools that have 69% or less of classified positions filled for the upcoming school year, according to OPS data. About 24 schools have 70% to 79% of their classified positions filled, while 25 have 80% to 89% and 18 are more than 90% filled. The majority of vacancies are in elementary schools.

Wakefield said OPS is lacking school-based classified staff the most, followed by nutrition services, transportation and operations employees.

“These numbers are much lower than we would like, but this is the time of the year that our classified staff positions are the lowest,” Wakefield said. “Our 10-month classified staff tell us they are not coming back in August.”

While about 96% of certified positions have been filled, the district still has unfilled positions. Wakefield said even though the district normally starts school at more than 99%, “every child will have a teacher” and most regular education vacancies have been filled.

Michelle Settlemyer, president of the Omaha Education Association, said while 96% is an optimistic number, she is concerned where the 4% unfilled positions fall around the district.

The majority of unfilled teaching positions are in special education. In the elementary level, 77 teaching positions remain open, which includes 63 special education or support jobs. The secondary level has 75.5 unfilled teaching positions, including 66 special education jobs.

Five schools in OPS still lack more than 10% of their certified staff. This includes four elementary schools and one high school.

The district chose not to fill 159 teaching positions across the district.

“These are positions we actively chose not to fill as we increased class sizes to address the staffing shortage,” he said.

Wakefield said the district is working with several strategies to recruit employees, especially classified staff.

The district scheduled four classified staff interview fairs this summer. Officials have been offering first-time job offers and background checks on the spot.

Officials scheduled hiring banners to rotate buildings through September and will implement “new hire spotlights” on social media.

A texting platform is being set up for candidates to communicate throughout the hiring process. OPS will also begin more advertising, including putting ads on more than 6,000 apps.

School board members also approved several stipend agreements with employee unions during Monday night’s meeting. The district announced in June that it will give full-time staff $4,500 a year and part-time staff $2,250 a year for the next two school years.

The money will be distributed in three equal payments throughout the year. Officials said the Nebraska Department of Education has approved the first year of stipends, which come from the district’s portion of federal COVID-19 relief.

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