With one of the largest special education programs in the state, Minneapolis Public Schools has recently announced that it’s grappling to fill vacancies for special-ed teachers and assistants.

In the past several years, the number of Minnesota students needing special-ed services has soared, while the shortage of teachers and aides to instruct them has become more pronounced, according to a 2017 report released by the state Department of Education. Almost all states across the nation are struggling with shortages in special education staff.

The shortfall in Minneapolis, Superintendent Ed Graff said, stems from the strong labor market and a high number of special-ed assistants leaving the job just before schools opened this year. Minneapolis began the new school year with fewer than 10 special-ed teacher vacancies, a significant improvement from previous years, district officials said. But Graff said he is concerned about vacancies among assistants, especially in high schools that serve students with severe learning disabilities. He said site administrators and the special-ed and human resources departments are working to close the gap.

“Our intent is to get those filled as quickly as possible with the same level of high quality staff we’d be pursuing throughout the course of the school year,” Graff said at a recent school board meeting.

The supply and demand for instructors are not matching up. There are about 545 full-time special-ed teacher positions and 570 full-time assistant positions. The district has 6,385 special education students, which is 18 percent of the district’s overall student population.

Boosting pay for hard-to-fill positions like special ed, experts say, is one way to end the shortage. But that strategy is not feasible in Minneapolis, where district officials have reduced special education funding by $1.7 million to make a dent in the $33 million budget shortfall that was projected for this school year.

District officials said they are working on a long-term plan to improve hiring and retaining of special-ed assistants, as well as bus drivers and custodians.

Londel French has been working for two years at Harrison Education Center in Minneapolis, where most students have severe behavioral and emotional needs. His duties range from academic support and de-escalating student aggression to assisting staff. Recently, French made the difficult decision to not return to his job, which pays between $17.15 and $21.36 an hour.

“I don’t want to go back there because I don’t feel safe,” said French, who said he was assaulted by a student and later suspended. “We don’t have the same protections as teachers so it’s easy to blame us for stuff that happened,” he said.

District spokesman Dirk Tedmon said the district can’t discuss French’s employment unless he signs a release.