WINFIELD, W.VA. -- The growing teacher shortage in Putnam County caused by recent retirements has started to affect special education, causing school officials to seek outside help to fill several speech therapy jobs.
This year, school board members hired five speech therapists outside of the school system, Schools Superintendent Chuck Hatfield said. Two therapists were hired from LinguaCare, a speech pathologist agency. Three others were contracted out of retirement.
"We asked them and they were willing to do it," Hatfield said. "I think they understand our situation ... we are extremely pleased with that."
Since the 2009-10 school year, two Putnam County speech therapists retired, one resigned and one transferred to a different teaching position within the county, according to school district human resource data. Two more therapist jobs remain unfilled.
Outsourcing any teaching position affects the amount of money the county gets from the state-appropriated school-aid-formula. The formula provides money for teachers' salaries to county school systems based on the number of students enrolled in their schools, the county population and other factors.
Counties cannot receive money through the school-aid formula with contracted teachers, and must pay for their salaries using local taxpayer funds.
The two LinguaCare therapists will cost the county $75 per hour, and will work a combined 35 hours a week, estimates Putnam County Special Education Director Annette Pratt. The contracted retirees will cost $40 per hour, and will work a combined 30 hours a week, Pratt said.
School officials are unlikely to seek outside help to fill other special education jobs, Hatfield said, but he did not rule out contracting more speech therapists in the future.
"We just have to advertise for those positions and try to find those people," he said. "But if we don't, we have no choice but to outsource."
Speech therapy requires a medical certification, which makes the jobs harder to fill in-house, Hatfield said. School officials can usually redistribute teachers to other special education positions using an out-of-field authorization. They cannot use uncertified teachers to fill in for speech therapists.
School officials also worry that shifting special education teachers from job to job using out-of-field authorizations will start to affect the quality of classroom instruction.
"Obviously we want to have the best qualified people working with these kids," Hatfield said. "The ultimate fear is that we would be in a position where we'd have people work with these kids that have no training and background working with that population."
School board members made several teacher switches in special education this summer on out-of-field authorizations and permits. Some of those teachers are not fully certified in special education, Putnam County Personnel Director Barb Brazeau said.
"If I, as a special educator, do not hold the special education certification, I'm not highly qualified," Brazeau said. "This year our percentage of highly qualified teachers I'm sure will go down."
The teacher shortage is not limited to special education.