Johnson County school districts deal with ‘unprecedented’ classified staff shortages

school staff vacancies

Johnson County school districts say shortages for classified staff, including custodians, classroom aides and lunch room workers, are at an all time high as the new school year begins. The districts say the vacancies are impacting school operations as they shuffle staff around and ask some retired workers to help out part-time. Above, a lunch room staff member in pre-pandemic times. File image.

The school year is underway, but many classified staff positions remain unfilled within the four public school districts serving northern Johnson County.

The shortage of classified workers is hindering some district operations at the start of a school year already plagued by the spread of the Delta variant, contentious disagreements over school mask requirements and the challenge of catching up on educational ground lost through online learning.

Officials in Blue Valley, Olathe, Shawnee Mission and USD 232 in De Soto all reported experiencing a higher number of classified staff vacancies in their district compared to recent years.

This includes shortages in custodians, lunch room staff and classroom aides.

“At this time of year, we haven’t seen this great of a need in food service and paraeducators as in the last five years,” Eric Punswick, Blue Valley’s chief human resources officer, said. “It’s somewhat unprecedented.”

Below is a look into the current most understaffed positions in each district:

  • Blue Valley said, depending on the day, the district needs anywhere between 80 to 100 paraeducator positions filled. Additionally, they are in need of 25 food service workers and 25 custodians.
  • USD 232 told the Post they have a vacancy of 19 paraprofessionals and 16 food service employees.
  • Olathe reported a total of 141 paraprofessional vacancies throughout their schools. The district is also lacking 50 food service employees and 15 custodians.
  • Shawnee Mission said they are experiencing a total of 136 vacancies of support staff within their district, but did not specify in what positions.

Additional shortages

Both Blue Valley and USD 232 also reported a significant lack of bus drivers available through the companies each has contracts with.

“Usually, we run around students’ normal routes, and there are additional drivers that can also do the sporting events,” said Carrie Handy, executive director of elementary education for USD 232.

Now, she said, the district has to adjust their bus routes by either having student athletes leave earlier in the day or moving games back to a later time.

There are not enough drivers to run the normal bus routes and transport kids to sports at the same time.

These districts are not alone in their struggle for bus drivers, schools across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio and Texas, have reported similar shortages, according ABC News.

A Merriam-based bus company that helps supply drivers to SMSD and Olathe Schools earlier this summer reported it was having trouble recruiting enough drivers to meet the districts’ needs.

The impact

Changes to bus routes are not the only way school districts have had to cope with the shortage.

It has been an “all hands on deck” mentality for many of the vacated positions, district officials say.

“We are essentially having our folks that are here on the job site doing additional work and finding ways to be creative with the scheduling to make it work,” Punswick in Blue Valley said.

Staff members are also being pulled from buildings that are fully staffed to help support other schools that are short workers, USD 232 reported.

“We’ve even modified some of our school meals that may be more difficult to make or take more people to prepare,” Handy said.

Additionally, all districts are still actively recruiting staff and looking for other means to fill vacancies.

Each district has posted their openings for classified staff, while also holding career job fairs in hopes to attract potential employees.

“We just held a job interview fair for classified positions… and we held open interviews and encouraged people to just come up on site,” Handy said.  “We had five total people show up during a two and a half hour period of time.”

Blue Valley said it is also asking some retired workers if they would be interested in coming back on a part-time basis to help out in schools.