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The countdown is on to the start of the 2023-24 school year, and districts across the state still are scrambling to fill jobs.

In the seven-county metro area, districts reported at least 519 teacher vacancies as of early August, according to a survey by the Minnesota School Boards Association, which says the number is likely much higher because not every school system participated.

Districts in greater Minnesota reported 349 teacher vacancies, with 217 of the positions drawing zero applicants.

"There's really some pretty big holes," Gary Lee, the association's deputy executive director, said Friday of the hiring challenges and potential classroom impacts.

St. Paul Public Schools, the state's second-largest district, hosted an event Friday resulting in the hiring of at least 60 new teacher aides. But nearly 100 such slots remain open.

The shortage of educators has been an ongoing issue nationwide and in Minnesota. But the survey is a first for the School Boards Association, which wanted hard numbers to help spur action by state and local leaders, Lee said.

Minnesota is investing in "grow your own" programs designed to get classroom aides on a track to teacher licensure as well as efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color — initiatives being coordinated in a new educator workforce center announced by the state Department of Education on Friday.

"We are excited to bring a new focus to preparing, supporting and retaining our teachers and school leaders with this new center," Education Commissioner Willie Jett said in a news release. "I am grateful to Governor Walz and the Legislature for their investments in growing our educator workforce."

The School Boards Association, however, sees such programs as long-term strategies that are of little help in addressing current hiring needs, Lee said.

"We really need short-term solutions — and we don't know what they are," he said.

Discussions are underway among education organizations, legislators and the governor's office, and districts are being asked for ideas, too, Lee said.

St. Paul, which received $319 million in federal pandemic relief funds, was able to tap reserve funds to offer $10,000 hiring bonuses to 70 special-education teachers — all of which have been claimed, district spokesman Ryan Stanzel said.

On Friday, the district held a hiring event for education assistants at Como Park Senior High, dangling $4,000 bonuses for special-education assistants, intervention specialists and mental health practitioners.

Altogether, the district is making 100 of the $4,000 bonuses available to education assistants, and as of Sunday, there still were 32 left to award, Stanzel said.

St. Paul also is opening a new East African elementary magnet school in September, a venture that could be aided by a change in teacher licensing effective Aug. 1.

That's because state government leaders have made it possible to bring certain "field experts" into classrooms, in this case, Indigenous and world language speakers.

They now are exempt from a requirement to hold bachelor's degrees while pursuing licenses to teach world language and culture, Michelle Hersh Vaught, chief of staff for the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, wrote in an email recently.

The East African magnet school is to be centered on the culture and languages of Somali, Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Arabic and Swahili.

Districtwide, St. Paul still had 77 teaching jobs to fill as of late Thursday, Stanzel said.