San Diego

Poway Unified Struggling to Fill Special Needs Aide Shortage

The Poway Unified School District is looking to fill 118 unfilled aide jobs

A shortage of instructional aides in the Poway Unified School District is leaving special needs students without individual care and wearing on the instructors that are left doing the work. 

PUSD is 20 percent short on instructional aides for their special needs students. And the union representing those aides, the Poway School Employees Association (PSEA), says that number is alarming.

Right now, there are 118 unfilled aide jobs, and that's if no aides take a day off.

“It’s difficult,” PSEA President Courtney Martin said. “It wears on them. They are unable to take breaks and lunches.”

Even if the district finds workers, it can’t keep them, Martin said.

“Our turnover rate is currently up to 19%,” Martin said. “And that’s really at an all-time high for us.”

To fill the gap, teachers with certificates have been subbing in -- a lot. In fact, last year more than half of aide openings, 60%, were filled by certified teachers.

The district says paying teachers to fill in for aides was not only expensive, but bad for morale.

Teachers could make twice as much subbing as an aide than if they accepted a permanent aide job. That changed last week when the district reached an agreement with PSEA.

As of Oct. 31, teachers filling in for aides will still be paid more than aides without a teaching certificate (roughly $3 more per hour), but they won’t be paid as if they were teaching like they were before.

“In the old system we had two people performing the same job paid on different salary schedules,” Poway Unified Schools Associate Superintendent of Student Services Greg Mizel said. “You could have a certificated teacher working as a full-time instructional assistant sitting next to a certificated teacher subbing, and the sub made 60%, 70% more, for the same job.”

While that system put a band-aid on the aide shortage by making it financially lucrative for teachers to fill in for empty positions, Mizel said it backfired as a long-term solution.

“It disincentives certificated teachers from serving as full-time employees. They made less when they crossed over from subs to full-time positions,” Mizel said.

As part of the memorandum of understanding, the district will consider making part-time aide positions full-time.

“It would have been ideal if we fixed the retention issue before we even touched the substitute structure,” Martin said.

However, if lowering the teacher sub rate ultimately allows the district to give part-time aides full-time hours, Martin is on board. Still, Martin says the shortage won’t get better until the district pays aides more.

“We have a problem that needs to be fixed,” Martin said. “To me this is step one of moving forward in a collaborative effort to fix the root problem, which is retention and paying people what they should be paid.”

The district stands behind its salaries for instructional aides, which it pays $15.06-$19.78 per hour. That falls near the median salary for instructional aides in San Diego County.

“You always wish you could pay more,” Mizel said. “But there are a lot of competing challenges with the budget.”

Martin said the median salary isn’t good enough.

“We shouldn’t shoot for average,” Martin said. “Why is it that in everything else we do in Poway, we shoot for the moon, but when it comes to our classified staff we shoot for average, middle of the road, 50%? To me, that’s just not acceptable for Poway.”

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