What suburban school districts are paying to attract substitute teachers
Even before the first semester was up, the Round Lake Area Unit District 116 school board was on its way to increasing the base pay for substitute teachers for the second time in less than a year.
The district now is paying a daily base rate of $180 to subs, a 56.5% increase from less than a year ago.
"In addition to competing with other districts, we also must compete with private businesses that have not only raised their hourly rates but are also incentivizing workers to bring them on board," District 116 Human Resources Director Kristie Belesiotis told the school board recently. "Therefore, we find ourselves in a high-demand, low-supply situation, which means that we, too, need to be more opportunistic in our efforts to attract both daily and long-term substitutes."
The Round Lake Area district is not the only one in that plight.
Dozens of suburban school district administrators acknowledged they are paying more for substitute teachers than they were a year ago, yet still often struggle to find enough subs to fill holes left by teacher absences.
"I don't know that our pool increased with the increased rates, but I felt they deserved it with the market rates and to assure for quality," said Itasca Elementary District 10 Superintendent Craig Benes, whose district now pays $130 a day for short-term subs.
Among 100 suburban school districts, the average daily rate for a substitute teacher is $131.76, according to a Daily Herald analysis of district records. The daily sub rates are as low as $95 in Queen Bee Elementary District 16 and as high as $217.50 in Bloomingdale Elementary District 13.
Long-term subs are even more expensive. Some districts will pay certified substitutes more than $300 a day to cover a classroom for a teacher on leave for a lengthy period of time.
Varying pay, approaches
Because the size of suburban school districts vary, the annual cost of hiring subs can vary widely, too. Some districts with four or five schools estimate they spend $300,000 a year on substitutes. There's no line item for substitute teaching costs on financial reports required of each district by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Some districts such as Medinah Elementary District 11 in DuPage County -- which has one school for kindergarten through second grade, another for third through fifth grades, and a middle school for sixth through eighth grades -- farm out sub hiring to an outside agency. In 2021, the district paid nearly $41,000 for subs. Last year, it was more than double at $95,000.
Some districts aren't afraid to pay a premium.
"Our sub pool are licensed paraprofessionals, so think of this like an apprenticeship," said District 13 Superintendent Jon Bartelt. "During COVID it worked out spectacularly as many other districts struggled to find subs."
Bartelt said these permanent subs report to work daily and are assigned myriad other duties if they are not needed to cover a classroom.
"The benefit to them is they are strongly considered when a vacancy takes place because we know what their body of work is," he said.
While the sub shortage predates the COVID-19 pandemic, the worldwide health emergency certainly put a spotlight on the problem.
In addition to the pandemic, superintendents cite mass retirements, younger teachers starting families and fewer college students choosing education as a career as reasons the need for substitutes has grown.
Then there's the law of unintended consequences. New teachers in Illinois can't bank sick days like their more experienced colleagues and use them to boost their retirement payout. Now these younger teachers are more apt to burn through all their sick days each year, requiring more substitutes than ever before.
Many districts are offering incentives beyond the increased pay. Most will increase the daily rate after a substitute has worked a number of days in the district. These so-called "loyalty" bonuses can range from an additional $10 a day to a $250 stipend if they work 25 days in the district.
Illinois has made it easier to become a substitute teacher in recent years.
The state used to mandate subs have at least a bachelor's degree in any discipline. Now, a two-year associate degree is enough. Noncertified subs in the past were allowed to cover the same classroom for only five consecutive days; now it's 15.
Fees for short-term substitute teaching licenses were waived in an effort to make the jobs more accessible. Subs can also work up to 120 days a year in the same district; before it was capped at 90.
Districts even have added financial incentives to lure retired teachers back to the classroom as substitutes by increasing the base daily substitute pay for those retirees by $20 to $50, depending on the district.
"We added that incentive for our retirees to pay $175 a day," Benes said. "Now, most of our subs are retired teachers."
Despite all the effort, superintendents lament, there's still a significant shortage. Many administrators have found themselves back in the classroom on multiple occasions.
"It's a problem at the top of the list no matter who you talk to, but nobody has figured out the solution," said Salt Creek Elementary District 48 Superintendent Frank Evans.
His school board allowed him to create two full-time positions for permanent subs who will report daily but do other work if a classroom isn't without a teacher.
"I just thought with as many subs as we've needed, we'd have stability and good hires through this pilot program," he said. "We've got lots for them to do assisting teachers in other capacities."
Aekta Thakkar is one of the paraprofessional substitute teachers at District 13 in Bloomingdale. Friday, she was teaching middle school science.
"Our school district does a wonderful job with making paraprofessionals feel inclusive, especially when filling in for the classroom teacher," she said. "We're not seen as 'substitutes' or 'fill-ins.' We're seen as educators."
• Daily Herald staff writer Paul Valade contributed to this report.