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Some Minnesota school districts are offering hiring bonuses of up to $10,000 to teachers in certain subject areas. Other districts are appealing to parents to take paraprofessional jobs and cooperating with neighboring districts to share staff members. And some are recruiting overseas.

Those are among the ways that school leaders across the state are dealing with significant teacher and other staff shortages. Various late summer surveys showed that hundreds of school positions remained unfilled as schools opened statewide during the past three weeks.

Still, some school systems were ready. The north suburban Fridley school district, for example, opened the year fully staffed, according to Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA). She told an editorial writer that the administration there did considerable advance planning to fill jobs to make sure schools had the staff they needed for 2023-24.

Fridley Superintendent Brenda Lewis told an editorial writer said she is fully staffed in part because of hiring educators from other countries. She said she started in Fridley in July and that her previous job had been in Grand Forks, N.D., where she hired 30 educators from other countries. She used the same strategy in Fridley and is bringing 10 new foreign-born staffers to her new district this year.

Lewis said that earlier in her career she had lived and worked in China as a principal and because of that experience had a better understanding of what it takes to get educators the proper visas and other documentation necessary to teach in the U.S.

"We can't wait for the longer-term programs like 'grow your own' because we have immediate needs," she said, referring to school programs and state grants that help nonlicensed people from the school community or school employees become certified to work as teachers. And recruiting from outside the U.S. brings high-quality, experienced candidates.

"Many of our superintendents are very interested in bringing on teachers from other countries," MASA's Henton said. "Hiring from outside the state and country, offering bonuses, encouraging parents to apply and stretching current staff are what districts are doing now to deal with the shortages."

"It used to be that we'd have lots of applicants for elementary teachers — now we're seeing only one, two or no applicants," Henton added.

The scope of Minnesota's school staffing shortage has been measured in various ways. A 2023 report by Minnesota's Professional Educator Licensing and Licensing Standards Board (PELSB) found that 80% to 90 % of Minnesota districts were significantly impacted by teacher and substitute shortages. That report also found that nearly a third of new educators are leaving teaching within their first five years in the profession.

And early last month, a Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) survey documented that there were hundreds of teacher and paraprofessional vacancies statewide. In the seven-county metro area, districts reported at least 519 teacher vacancies as of early August, and districts in greater Minnesota reported 349 teacher vacancies. But those numbers are likely low because not all districts reported.

MSBA Deputy Director Gary Lee told an editorial writer that, anecdotally, the number of vacant jobs has come down a bit since early August. He said that districts including Willmar, Red Lake and Climax-Shelly are in various stages of increasing their teacher pools with educators from other countries such as the Philippines.

At an August job fair, St. Paul school leaders have offered bonuses of up to $10,000 for special education teachers and $4,000 for noncertified positions. That helped the district fill some positions on the spot.

Longer-term solutions are also in the works. Recognizing the problem, Minnesota lawmakers approved additional funding for recruiting, hiring, training and retaining teachers. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) will use more than $100 million from the state to support teacher mentoring, a special education teacher pipeline program, reimbursements for testing and licensing fees, and more grants for "grow your own" programs like those in Duluth and St. Paul.

On the national level, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., recently reintroduced legislation that would channel federal dollars into teacher recruitment and retention.

Lee said state districts are being persistent and doing things like reaching out to retired staff, moving educators into other areas and allowing paraprofessionals to be substitutes. They're also using partnerships with other districts to share staff and offer online course options. He said that while he supports districts such as St. Paul offering bonuses, those programs cause teachers to move rather than increasing the state's overall pool of educators.

That's why Lee also sees promising potential in bringing in educators from other countries. Though recruiting foreign-born staff has its own set of challenges — such as travel, obtaining visas and finding sponsors — it can be a more permanent solution to increasing the cohort of teachers in the state.