Hour of Code Connection

University Park Elementary School sixth grade teacher Kristin Bell, center, helps students Roen Hoppner, left, and Reid Wener, right,work on writing computer code in the school computer lab Friday morning, December 12, 2014.

FAIRBANKS - A teacher shortage affecting much of the country appears to have found root in Alaska as well.

During the recession in 2008 and 2009, many states cut teaching positions. Now, as many of those same states rebound they’re looking to refill those positions, but they’re discovering there may not be enough teachers looking for work to fill them.

While school districts in Alaska aren’t adding teaching positions at nearly the rate of their counterparts in the Lower 48, they don’t appear to have been spared the effects of a national teacher shortage. In Fairbanks, at least, schools are looking to fill dozens of positions.

With school in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District starting Aug. 19, school officials say they have an unusually high number of positions left to fill.

Last week, with 14 days before the start of school, the district was still looking to fill 21 certified teaching positions. By Tuesday, the district had winnowed their needs down to seven teaching positions, but their search in other areas remained critical.

The district is still seeking to fill 52 positions for support staff, according to school district spokeswoman Sharice Walker. Unfilled support staff positions range from school nurses to central kitchen workers, though one of the greatest areas of need is classroom aides.

Walker said the number of openings is unusual for this time of year, according to her discussions with administrators who have been involved with hiring in past years.

Potential causes

For Fairbanks, the problem may not so much be an increase in positions but a combination of several things. In particular, the failure by the Alaska Legislature to set school funding by the end of its regular session and the teacher shortage Outside may have combined to form a difficult market for districts.

Walker said the district is still receiving notice from some former support staff members who say they will not be returning for the upcoming school year.

At the end of the 2014-15 school year, facing an uncertain future and likely multi-million dollar budget cut from the Alaska Legislature, the Fairbanks school board discussed potential reductions in numerous support staff areas.

In the spring, many district staff members received notices of doubtful status, telling them they might not have jobs with the district in the next year. At the time, some teachers said they worried the notices would cause teachers to begin looking for new work elsewhere.

Whether or not that worry has materialized in the form of a lack of applicants for the 2015-16 school year, Walker said it has at least been a factor. Walker said some staff, when contacted by the district to be recalled, have said they can’t come back because they’ve already found new jobs since the end of last school year.

Fairbanks Education Association President Nancy Duez, who took over as leader of the local teachers union this summer, said the problem may have something to do with how long it took the district to get its final funding numbers.

“When funding comes through so late, it causes a problem for our district when it comes to hiring,” Duez said. “Funding came through so late that by the time our district was able to offer contracts to teachers and go to the job fairs ... a lot of those applicants were already picked up by other districts.”

Sue Hull, a member of the Fairbanks school board as well as the state board of education, said part of the problem likely originates from the uncertain future of education funding in Alaska.

Hull also serves as chair of the Pacific region committee for the National School Boards Association.

“(The association) recently had our region conference, and almost all of the other states ... had increases in education funding, which puts us at a disadvantage because we didn’t and our fiscal outlook is not bright right now,” she said. “That will impact the willingness that folks in the Lower 48 might have to come to Alaska to teach.”

Hull said when teachers see an uncertain fiscal future in a state it often makes them less likely to seek employment there. Should layoffs be necessary, teachers in their first year in the district would be the first to go, making a move to somewhere as far away as Alaska less likely for young teachers in other states.

The situation is made harder still for Alaska because the state usually receives about two-thirds of its teachers from Outside. With so many Outside teachers being strongly recruited early by districts in the Lower 48, Alaska schools have seen a reduced pool of potential applicants.

The shortage comes in the midst of a University of Alaska initiative to increase the proportion of Alaska-trained teachers working in the state’s public school system. The initiative, officially approved in the last year, aims to dramatically increase the number of homegrown teachers.

By 2025, UA hopes to graduate 50 percent more teachers capable of working in Alaska schools. It also aims to cut down on the high turnover of teachers who come from out of state and leave within their first few years. The program is still in its early stages, however.

The eventual hope is that, within the next decade, Alaska will have a healthy pipeline of homegrown teachers who will be more likely to continue teaching in their home state for the long haul. At the moment, however, schools are thinking more about 2015 than 2025.

Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMschools.