Shelton, Milford weathering storm of staff shortages

Photo of Brian Gioiele
Exterior view of the Board of Education offices in Shelton, Conn. Nov. 5, 2020.

Exterior view of the Board of Education offices in Shelton, Conn. Nov. 5, 2020.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

State officials announced this past week that more than 1,000 certified staff member positions were vacant last month in Connecticut schools.

But while numerous school districts are struggling to fill vacancies, two have escaped the pain of searching for certified staff.

Shelton had no vacancies until three certified staffers — a school psychologist, a Mohegan School teacher and a pre-K instructor — announced their resignations late last month. All three will be gone by year’s end, according to Shelton schools Chief of Staff Carole Panozzo.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate,” Panozzo said.

Nearby Milford has had similar success keeping its employees, although the superintendent noted the city has noticed a difference this year in its hiring.

“While Milford Public Schools currently has a small number of teacher vacancies, we will note that hiring has been more of a struggle this year compared to years past,” Milford Superintendent Anna Cutaia said.

The number of available candidates is smaller given that we are in a global pandemic, Cutaia said.

“With that said, however, Milford continues to attract high quality educators,” she added, “and we have been able to fill all positions to date with the exception of five teacher vacancies as of this writing — all of which became available within the last month.”

On its website, Milford schools show four teacher vacancies, along with one in security and one in clerical.

Cutaia said the main struggle in her district is hiring substitutes of all types — teachers, support staff, and cafeteria aides, among others. In all, the website states there are 11 substitute openings and 11 support staff openings.

In September, Cutaia said the district temporarily increased the daily rate for substitute teachers, as a way to attract individuals to these types of positions.

“We believe this has helped in our ability to staff our schools appropriately during the pandemic,” she said.

Panozzo credited Shelton schools’ competitive salary and leadership under Superintendent Ken Saranich for helping to keep present staff while enticing many from outside the district to apply when openings arise. One area that remains tough to fill, Panozzo said, is special education.

Last Wednesday, the state Board of Education authorized emergency certifications to fill those positions with qualified educators. The state Department of Education cited COVID-19 for the rise to “unprecedented staffing challenges” that — at last count in mid-November — meant 1,000 positions are unfilled.

“I’m sure you’re all aware of the challenges around staffing, and staffing shortages,” Charlene Russell-Tucker, the education commissioner, told the board. “It’s a real area of crisis that I know our districts are facing.”

Last year, the state issued 174 emergency certifications, according to Shauna Tucker, the department’s chief talent officer, to reassign educators to teach in staffing shortage areas. But even as schools have returned to some level of normalcy with in-person classes and widespread vaccination, staffing has remained a major challenge in several of the state’s districts.

“This affords the district the opportunity to move certified teachers within their districts to fill the specific needs that they have at the time,” said Russell-Tucker.

The staffing crisis has not hit all schools equally. And the town-to-town discrepancies and persistent shortages have led district officials to suggest their staffing woes won’t fizzle out when the pandemic ends.

“We’ve heard from superintendents they can’t compete with other districts because they may be offering signing bonuses or higher salaries, and maybe less stressful environments,” said Russell-Tucker.

To respond, the state has tried introducing what officials hope will be long-term solutions as well, such as grow-your-own-teacher models and perks for those entering the workforce. Department officials added they’re not just focused on recruiting, but also retaining educators, especially as many feel burned out teaching through a pandemic.