Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis has in recent weeks drawn attention to a statewide teacher shortage, warning that thousands of instructional vacancies could be putting student learning at risk.

But reports of an immediate crisis are overblown, a Courier Journal review has found.

That's because figures being used to describe the shortage -- for example, that school districts have posted more than 2,000 teaching vacancies since April -- fail to acknowledge that hundreds of those vacancies have, in fact, been filled.

Jefferson County Public Schools, for example, had as of Friday morning 595 teaching vacancies posted on the state's educator employment website. By its own account, though, JCPS said it had just 129 instructional vacancies.

State employment data for Fayette County Public Schools, Kentucky's second largest district, also failed to match up with district records. Though FCPS on Friday had 367 teaching jobs posted on the state website, a district spokeswoman said the school system considered just 28 certified jobs vacant.

"And we are making more offers as we speak," Lisa Deffendall said.

Smaller districts shared similar discrepancies with the Courier Journal.

State data showed Anderson County Schools and Johnson County Schools each have 26 vacancies. Asked for updated data, both districts said they had just two job openings.

Jessica Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said the state was aware of the issue. But she maintained the department had been clear in its messaging.

"We've been intentionally saying that that is not the current number of vacancies, but the number of positions posted," Fletcher said. "I have seen some misreporting by a few news agencies where they mistakenly refer to the number of vacancies, not postings that may have previously been filled."

As of early Monday morning, the state had not asked any news outlets to correct or clarify their stories. By noon, Fletcher said she had contacted two news organizations and would be sending out a news advisory about the differences between postings and vacancies.

Kentucky law requires public school districts to notify the state education department of vacancies. Those jobs are posted on the Kentucky Educator Placement Service website.

Once a district fills a vacancy, it is responsible for notifying the state. The state then has the duty to take down the job posting.

But in the busy summer hiring season, the multi-step process can create a backlog -- leaving hundreds of newly staffed positions still counted among vacancies.

JCPS spokeswoman Renee Murphy said the district was communicating with the state about updating its data. Deffendall, the FCPS spokeswoman, said the Lexington district was "focused on getting people in positions, not on paperwork."

Matt Cook, assistant superintendent for Pulaski County Schools, said his district is "still in the process" of taking down postings for jobs no longer vacant. The state listed 23 openings; Cook said Pulaski County only had three.

"At this time of year, things happen extremely fast in (human resources) when it comes to hiring teachers," said Phil Sheehy, human resources director for Boone County Schools.

Fletcher said the discrepancies were a "function of how the system works."

"We are obviously reliant on the districts to update the data right now, and because of the lag time of doing background checks, we can't have an updated number of vacancies," she said.

Pressed on why the department used the data in its conversations about the teaching shortage, Fletcher said it was just one of many data points referenced.

The department has also shared figures illustrating the decline in teaching majors, she said. In 2010, 3,230 students across the state completed educator preparation programs. By 2017, that number had dropped to 2,073.

Additionally, Fletcher pointed to an overall increase in the number of vacancies posted by districts in recent years. The posting jumped by nearly 80% between 2014 and 2018, according to the state.

Fletcher said the department is "in the initial phases of a project to obtain a new platform for posting vacancies that would capture more real-time data."

Some districts reached by the Courier Journal shared vacancy data on par with figures listed on the state website. Floyd County Schools, for example, confirmed that it had 21 teaching vacancies -- the same number posted online.

Lewis had drawn attention to the vacancies ahead of the launch of a new state campaign to recruit and retain new teachers.

"When you couple the attrition we're dealing with, with the reality that fewer people are completing the credentials and applying for jobs, it gives you a pretty significant, what I would call, crisis situation," Lewis told members of the Kentucky Board of Education last week. "So we have to have all hands on deck in terms of thinking about how we address teacher shortages."

Through the campaign, dubbed "Go Teach KY," the state will encourage high school and college students to consider careers in teaching. It will also promote alternative routes into the profession.

At the Aug. 7 board meeting, Lewis said he was interested in "structurally reforming the teaching profession to make it more attractive to young people."

"Younger generations are looking for professions that reward them for their efforts, that recognize them, that give them the opportunity to have expanded responsibility, for the job to change," Lewis said. " ... If they think it's going to take 10 years for them to be recognized and have expanded responsibility, then that's not a profession that they're looking at."

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