Northwest Arkansas school districts operate on hiring shortages

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Due to a lack of staff, school districts in Northwest Arkansas are struggling to transport students, serve meals, and keep schools clean.

“Anytime we have to cover a position that is unfilled, it impacts other classrooms or other positions in the district,” said Greg Mones, director of human resources for the school district of Fayetteville.

The pandemic is often a factor for people who choose not to work in schools right now, he said.

“They just don’t feel comfortable or safe right now,” Mones said.

Chris Davis, assistant superintendent of human resources and campus support for the Fort Smith School District, also noted competition within the region for workers.

“The biggest challenge in filling these positions is making sure that we are competitive with the job market that we have in the private and commercial sector,” said Davis.

School districts often have to compete with companies like Walmart or McDonald’s that pay at least $ 15 an hour, he said.

The wages of guards in Fayetteville range from $ 12 to $ 24.56 an hour, and Rogers bus drivers earn $ 17,085 to $ 23,949, per year, depending on district pay scales. Bus drivers are required to have a commercial driver’s license, administrators said.

The districts’ current hiring challenges reflect the general employment climate nationwide, Davis said.

Northwest Arkansas census area Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers had an unemployment rate of 2.7% as of Sept. 29, down from the pandemic high of 7.6% in April 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the United States.

The national unemployment rate fell from 14.8% to 5.2%, and Arkansas’ unemployment rate fell from 10% to 4.2% during the same period, according to the office.

The US Department of Labor reported that 4.3 million people left their jobs in August, or about 2.9% of the workforce, according to data released Tuesday. This total is higher than the record set in April and nearly matched in July of around 4 million people who quit smoking.

Administrators in northwest Arkansas and statewide say districts continue to face shortages in positions such as bus drivers, babysitters and cafeteria staff.

DRIVER DEFICITS

All of the larger districts in northwest Arkansas are in need of bus drivers, administrators said.

“Our routes are very full, our buses are very full, and our routes are longer due to the shortage of drivers,” said Tanya Sharp, director of operations for the Bentonville school district.

Bentonville has 15 open bus driver positions. Fayetteville has 50 openings, Springdale has 30 and Rogers has six, administrators said. The Fort Smith School District had two positions advertised on its website as of October 7.

“We could use an unlimited number of replacements,” Mones said of the drivers who cover shifts when others are sick.

Bentonville students arrived at school up to an hour late due to a shortage of drivers, Sharp said. She noted that drivers were doubling the routes to bring students to school.

Fayetteville and Springdale are taking similar steps, the directors said.

“Our schools have staggered start times, which has helped us a bit so that the kids aren’t too late to get there,” Mones said. “We are managing. It is not easy.”

Springdale is pulling other areas to meet the needs of the routes, said Trent Jones, communications director for the Springdale School District.

“Coaches, teachers, principals and even our director of transport have a bus line,” he said.

Bus driver shortages can impact student success, Jones said.

“When the students are in school, they learn and have fun, build relationships with friends and they are fed every day,” he said. “A shortage of bus drivers puts all of this potentially at risk because of the pressure it puts on our families to adjust their schedules to make sure their students get to school.”

Jennifer Keith, 46, said she has two children who attend Springdale schools and their bus was canceled due to a driver shortage three days earlier this month, forcing her to develop a plan to get them to and from school.

Keith is a single mother who is self-employed as an electrical engineer, she said. Waits ranging from 20 minutes to over an hour in the school stop and pick up lane are inconvenient for her children and interfere with her work, she said.

“I’m just telling them they’re going to have to wait there about 20 more minutes, so I don’t have to sit in the line of cars,” Keith said. “I’m on my computer all day, so I certainly can’t do this while I’m driving.”

Schools in the region also share shortages in child nutrition staff, administrators said.

A lack of staff can mean fewer dining choices for students at Rogers, said Roger Hill, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources.

“We are cutting other one employee’s kitchens to cover the worst deficit,” he said of schools with shared staff. “We had to reduce the menu several times to one choice to simplify it.”

Rogers has five vacancies in its infant nutrition staff, Bentonville has 18, Fayetteville has 14 and Springdale has 11, the directors said. Fort Smith had four positions open on its website as of October 7.

A variety of other support positions are open in school districts, such as day care staff, substitute teachers, transportation helpers, before and after school staff and nursing assistants, administrators said.

DISTRICT EMPLOYMENT

School districts are often one of a city’s biggest employers, but are often overlooked by job seekers who don’t consider the many positions available in schools beyond teaching, Mones said.

The five largest school districts in northwest Arkansas together employ more than 10,000 people, according to administrators. Springdale, the state’s largest district, has about 3,000 of these employees.

School districts offer attractive benefits and competitive pay and retirement systems, Sharp said.

The Rogers School District also ranked No.1 on Forbes ‘list of Arkansas’ Top Employers for 2021, Hill said.

The survey, released in August, lists 25 employers for Arkansas. The survey ranked the top three employers at 101 in each state, based on the size of its workforce, according to the survey report. The Bentonville School District ranked fourth on Forbes’ list.

Working for young people can also have personal benefits, Jones said.

“There is something beautiful about serving children in your community,” he said. “It’s enriching.”

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Salary scales

Information on the salary scales for the largest school districts in Northwest Arkansas can be found at:

Bentonville: https://bit.ly/3DERcqD

Fayetteville: https://bit.ly/3FRgJyz

Fort Smith: https://bit.ly/3p4QIG4

Springdale: https://bit.ly/3Dzy5ya

Rogers: https://bit.ly/3DMI4QT

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette


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