Schools spent little of $19 million from state on substitute teacher training

Many substitute teachers across Oregon claim districts owe them for the time they spent taking mandatory training

By: - November 27, 2023 6:00 am

The Oregon Legislature set money aside to ensure substitute teachers would be paid to take mandatory trainings. But many say they were not paid for their time from districts. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When Debbie Fery started hearing this year from substitute teachers who had not been paid for time spent taking mandatory trainings, it felt personal. 

Fery, treasurer and chair of government affairs for the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association, and a substitute teacher herself, took her own fight to get paid for a required safety training to the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industry back in 2020. 

“It’s like no one respects us enough to pay for it,” she said. 

All teachers are required to take certain training courses, some each year, and most full-time teachers take the classes during the week before school starts when they’re technically back on the clock. But substitute teachers often have to complete the training when they’re not on the clock.

Many of the courses that districts require substitute teachers to take – on things like cybersecurity, federal academic and health privacy laws and what to do in the event of a school shooting – take no more than a few hours online, and by law, districts must pay substitute teachers for their time. But Fery said many aren’t doing so and that state money set aside for this since 2022 has gone unused. 

District officials told the Capital Chronicle that’s because they didn’t need the money. 

Fery settled her claim of wage theft with the Willamette Education Service District, 16 of the 21 districts it encompasses and the substitute teacher staffing company Edustaff, all of which had told her they didn’t owe her money for the time she spent taking the online courses in 2018, 2019 and 2020. 

Following the settlement, the labor bureau wrote a guidance letter to districts and posted it to its website, explaining that by law they needed to pay substitutes for mandatory training. Still, Fery said, district officials have told her and members of the substitute teachers association that they do not need to pay them. 

Teacher associations like hers played a critical role in securing state funding in 2022 for districts so they could pay substitute teachers for more than 20 different training classes, many of which are mandatory depending on the district. Less than one-third of Oregon’s 197 school districts and 19 education service districts have used the state money, leading Fery and legislators to wonder how widespread wage theft is for substitutes taking these trainings. 

The Capital Chronicle emailed 17 districts that either requested money and did not use it, or did not request any money at all. The few administrators who responded said they tapped into other pots of money to pay substitutes to train, that they did not need the money or that a company that provides them with substitute teachers is responsible for paying them to take required courses.

New task force

State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, convened in early November the first meeting of a new Joint Task force on Substitute Teachers, of which Fery is a member. It’s looking at a number of issues that’s led to a shortage of substitute teachers statewide and the growing reliance on two private companies – ESS and Edustaff – to provide substitutes to districts. 

Dembrow said the task force will consider concerns about wage theft in the coming year. It is slated to provide recommendations to the state Legislature by December of 2025. 

Dembrow said he still needs to learn more about why districts have not used the money the state set aside in 2022. 

“To be fair to them, if there were problems with the process, we should know that,” he said. “But we need to get to a place where subs are getting paid for the training that they need.” 

Fery said she’s heard from more than 30 substitutes in at least 10 districts who have not been paid to take SafeSchools Training, a series of courses intended to show that all teachers are following state and federal safety mandates. She asked several if they would talk with a Capital Chronicle reporter but said they declined out of fear of retribution. 

$16 million unspent

Due to a critical shortage of both substitute teachers and fully licensed classroom teachers, the Oregon Legislature in early 2022 passed House Bill 4030 on teacher licensing and other requirements. It included $100 million in incentives and bonuses to attract and retain teachers, classroom assistants and substitute teachers and $19 million for districts to reimburse classroom assistants and substitute teachers for mandatory training through January of 2024. But districts have spent just $3 million – 15% – of that money, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education. Districts had until the end of July to submit invoices for reimbursement. The remaining $16 million can no longer be spent and will be returned to the Legislature in January, according to the Oregon Department of Education. 

Of Oregon’s 197 school districts and 19 education service districts, 93 districts applied to the education department for money and just 53 actually used it. 

Administrators in districts that applied but didn’t spend the money, or used far less money than they were allocated told the Capital Chronicle they didn’t need it or as much as they thought. They had substitutes take the training while they were on the clock, they said, or used money from the Student Success Act – meant to boost equity, mental health care and help recover learning time lost during COVID for the state’s highest needs students – to pay them.

Many districts that applied for funding did not submit invoices for reimbursement by July, according to the data from the education department. Some districts ultimately invoiced for just a fraction of the money the state was prepared to give them. 

As one example, the West Linn-Wilsonville School District didn’t spend any of the $263,000 it applied for and the state allotted. The Multnomah Education Service District, serving about 100,000 students in eight school districts – including Portland Public, the state’s largest district – didn’t spend any of the more than $194,000 that officials applied for in 2022.

An unnamed media relations official wrote via email that most substitutes took mandatory trainings during work hours and that it used Student Success Act money to pay for any training outside of those hours. 

Superintendent Mike Johnson of the Creswell School District near Eugene said the Lane Education Service District provides most of the substitute teachers at Creswell schools and pays for their training. He did apply for $56,250 to pay for SafeSchools Training for classroom teachers and classified staff from the state’s $19 million fund, but in the end, the district only owed $1,300 for training hours, he said. He expensed it to the school’s general fund instead. 

In all, the state’s money paid for 11,000 substitutes and classroom assistants to take mandatory training. The average per hour of training across employees was $50. 

Of the 11,000, 30% were contracted by a third party service. The two largest in Oregon are ESS and Edustaff. Those companies aren’t allowed to bill the state for training, but they can bill the district for the training hours, and the district can bill the state for reimbursement, according to Fery. She has worked under contract for Edustaff as a substitute and said it is not uniformly paying substitutes to take the training.

The Greater Albany School District was allocated $300,000 from the state, but it never invoiced for reimbursement. Michelle Steinhebel, communications director for the district, said it entered into a contract with Edustaff last year and that officials were under the impression that the company is ensuring the teachers take the SafeSchools courses and paying them for their time. 

Attempts by the Capital Chronicle to reach representatives of Edustaff and ESS by phone and email went unanswered. 

For Fery, withholding payment for mandatory training is a form of wage theft that is leading to a lack of dignity and respect that perpetuates the state’s teacher shortages.

Dembrow agrees that it is not helping.

“All the steps that we can take to get this workforce the professional recognition that they deserve – that’s what we need to do,” he said.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.

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