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St. Paul Public Schools wants to hire more than 200 teachers and teacher aides for the next academic year. And the state's second-largest school district is setting aside $1.3 million in hiring and retention bonuses to get there.

District leaders are specifically hoping to fill 70 special-education positions for the fall. Those spots come with a $10,000 bonus paid out over three years. Executive Chief of Human Resources Patricia Pratt-Cook said about 17% of the district's students qualify for special-education services and called the bonuses a "proactive step to ensure our students have the best educators in the state."

"Our students deserve nothing less, and in this competitive job market, we need to do everything we can to attract the best candidates to our classrooms," she said.

The St. Paul district's incentive program is the latest example of an ongoing struggle to keep Minnesota's schools fully staffed as veterans retire and new hires drop out at sharply higher rates than before the pandemic. Other districts, including Minneapolis, have also struggled in recent years to maintain a robust bench of subs and special-education teachers.

In the Anoka-Hennepin district, the state's largest, the school board approved a bonus program for substitutes — $500 for teachers and $400 for paraeducators who work at least 50 days between Sept. 6 and Jan. 31 or Feb. 1 and June 8.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said districts across the state have been looking for ways to ensure they're fully staffed. Several, like St. Paul, have turned to hiring and retention bonuses as a way to persuade teachers on the brink of retirement to stay or to quickly hire for those positions.

That's because private sector employers are providing competitive wages and benefits, Croonquist said. Minnesota continues to see some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and the well of available workers is shallow.

"We're going to see more and more of this," Croonquist said.

Jay Wahi, a member of the St. Paul Federation of Educators executive committee who worked as a special-education teacher at Central High, called the incentive program "a fair offer from the district in trying to address a need."

"Oftentimes, we were not fully staffed as special-education specialists in our buildings and they really have the most direct impact on students," he said.

Special-education positions are particularly tricky to fill, he said, because every student those teachers work with have acute academic needs that require a differentiated approach.

"They're like little puzzle pieces," Wahi said. "It takes awhile to figure out how kids tick and what gets them motivated to learn."

A survey of nearly 290 school districts across the state conducted last July showed administrators struggled to find qualified candidates for jobs they posted for the following school year. More than 90% of district officials surveyed by the Minnesota Department of Education and Professional Educators Licensing Standards Board cited candidate quality as a limiting factor in their ability to fully staff schools.

Two-thirds said they couldn't compete with wages and benefits offered by local, private-sector employers and nearly as many cited negative perceptions about the profession as a hurdle in recruiting candidates.

Croonquist said districts are keeping a close eye on the Legislature. Gov. Tim Walz has proposed a $700 million boost in state funding for education over the next two years and to tie further increases to the rate of inflation.

"If the Legislature and governor do come through with significant increases in funding, certainly that will help districts be competitive and offer better compensation," Croonquist said.

In addition to incentives for special-education teachers, the St. Paul district is offering $4,000 bonuses as it seeks to staff up in other shortage areas, including:

• Sixty educators to teach math, chemistry, middle school science or English language learner programs.

• Fifty special-education assistants, behavior intervention specialists and mental health practitioners.

• Fifty special-education teaching assistants.

The district is also offering a $2,000 bonus to any special-education specialist who holds a temporary teaching license and obtains a higher-tier license with unlimited renewals by November.