Hundreds of staff vacancies in Minneapolis Public Schools have dashed educators' and parents' hopes for a more "normal" school year, particularly for children who need additional support.

Staff is stretched dangerously thin in special education departments at several schools, and educators from at least two — Harrison Education Center and Hall STEM Academy — are trying to raise alarm. Failing to provide the support promised in individualized education plans is both a compliance and a safety concern, they say. Some parents are also pushing back after realizing they've been sending children to schools without licensed special education staff.

While staffing shortages aren't new or unique to Minneapolis schools, the need this fall has proven more acute, teachers and families say.

"I've been at a different site every day talking to staff and I'm hearing it almost everywhere — these staffing levels are unsafe," said Greta Callahan, teacher chapter president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

Openings at district headquarters are also creating chaos: The district's finance and human resources departments remain understaffed, creating a slew of payroll problems and further slowing the race to fill vacant positions. The district has a single person handling payroll and five open jobs in human resources.

"Me and my team are working overtime to try to keep our hands on any candidates we can," said Candra Bennett, the district's senior human resources officer. But the trickle of candidates has slowed now that the school year is underway, she said, and a tight labor market means candidates have several options.

"I bang my head on my desk every day thinking, 'What more can we do?'" Bennett said.

Minneapolis schools is hiring for a grant-funded position dedicated to innovative hiring solutions. The district is also becoming its own licensing entity in an effort to build a teacher pipeline. But the return on those investments won't be seen for a few years.

Job openings across district

About 650 positions remain open, Bennett said. That includes about 150 classroom teacher positions and 135 openings in special education programs. As of the beginning of October, the district was still looking to hire 45 special education teachers and 90 special education assistants.

Overall, the vacancy rate is similar to last year, Bennett said, and the district is still struggling to fill jobs in other departments, including:

  • Transportation, 30% vacancy rate.
  • Culinary and wellness, 32% vacancy rate.
  • Plant operations, 18.5% vacancy rate.

The agreement that ended the three-week teachers strike in the spring included adding positions to offer more mental health support for students. But many of those remain vacant, Bennett said. The strike also required schools to reopen their budgets, which slowed the hiring process.

Minneapolis schools are in the process of adjusting staff, which has included moving two dozen teachers to different schools based on enrollment. The district has about 8,700 fewer students than it did five years ago — enrollment is down 1,300 students from last year — but "we're still staffed like we were five years ago," Bennett said.

Special education needs

Schools in every part of the city are struggling to fill special education positions, making it hard to simply redistribute licensed staff to schools without them.

Still, parents and teachers say district leaders should have made a better plan.

In mid-August, families of special education students received a letter from district leadership explaining that, at that time, about 12% of the special education teaching positions were filled and that families may be contacted about changing schools.

Colin Hobbs, the father of a Kenny Elementary fifth-grader with autism, is frustrated that the district wasn't more upfront.

The school has gone weeks without a special education teacher or support staff, and the principal and school nurse have stepped in to substitute.

"That's basically just babysitting," Hobbs said, adding that he's noticed his son backsliding academically and seen an uptick in disruptive behaviors. "They are certainly not filling his [individualized education plan]."

Kenny families found out Tuesday a special education teacher will be at the school starting next week.

Staff pleas for help

Alexis Mann, a teacher at Harrison Education Center, a Minneapolis high school for students with severe emotional and behavioral needs, said students and staff are put at risk. As of Oct. 5, Harrison had 11 vacancies for special education assistants.

"It's not safe to continue to operate like we are fully staffed," Mann said. Because of the mental toll of multiple staff injuries this year, Mann said several Harrison staff members called in sick Tuesday.

"These kids are sent here because they need more support, but we don't have the staff to offer that right now," Mann said.

Teachers at Hall STEM Academy this week submitted a petition to district administration citing similar safety concerns. As of Oct. 5, the school had six vacancies in special education.

Marcia Wyatt, a second grade teacher at Hall, said there have been a "high number of incidents" of students acting out, which has included hitting and kicking.

These are students that, with adequate staffing, would typically spend part of their day in a smaller classroom or have one-on-one support to help with their frustrations.

"Our teachers are spending their day just trying to manage students," Wyatt said. "That's not why we show up every day. ... We can't educate them if they don't have the support they need."