Why schools are struggling to fill positions, from educational assistants to custodians to coaches

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Sept. 5, 2022 1 p.m.

Why it matters, and how to solve the problem.

When school starts Tuesday at McKinley Elementary in Beaverton, Kyrsti Sackman will be there.

“I’m a firm believer — if you work in education, you have some kind of passion for your community, students,” Sackman said. “I have a really big passion for working with people that are neurodiverse, so working in a school is just really something that fills my bucket.”


Sackman is a paraeducator. She works with a small number of students, in a specialized classroom for students with disabilities.

She’s heading into the new year with “nervous excitement;” excited to see students experience school free of COVID restrictions, but worried about which staff will — and won’t be there.

“It’s definitely a very demanding job, especially with all of the staff [who are] missing, and then the worry about subs … I worry about who’s driving the students to school on Tuesday!” Sackman said.

Schools run on people — teachers and principals, but also bus drivers, custodians, educational assistants and front office workers. And schools are heading into the new year facing shortages among classified, or nonteaching, staff.

A school bus outside a school building.

A school bus drops students off at Kellogg Middle School in southeast Portland on Sept. 1, 2021.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Vancouver Public Schools recently reported 120 paraeducator vacancies, as well as 25 openings for school bus drivers, and 30 open jobs for nutrition service workers.

In the Reynolds School District, there are 131 openings districtwide, with most of them for classified positions.

At the end of August, Portland Public Schools had 93 paraeducator openings. The president of the union representing those employees said that represents “about 25% of that workforce.”

The hiring page on the website for the Ashland School District has a message: “The Ashland School District is facing staffing shortages like we’ve never seen before. We need your help filling vacancies in our schools.”

As some schools work to find solutions to vacancies, the big question is why these jobs aren’t being filled — and what can be done about it. Statewide, Oregon unemployment remains low, and private sector jobs have largely rebounded since the rash of layoffs in March 2020. But recovery has been slower in the education field.

Sarah Wofford, president of the Oregon School Employees Association, said the reason why comes down to low pay and lack of benefits.

“When you are seeing that McDonald’s or Panda Express or somewhere can hire you at a higher wage than our educational assistants who are there to help educate our children … you’re not going to stay for the wages that’s offered,” Wofford said.

Schools struggle to keep workers from leaving

The problem districts face is not just hiring employees, but getting them to stay, especially when pay for other jobs is increasing.

According to OSEA “approximately 3,300 employees” left their classified roles in the three school years before 2021-2022, out of 22,000 positions.

“In the 2021-22 school year, the number of employees who left employment jumped to over 5,300,” said OSEA in an email to OPB.

Even among districts, there’s competition for the same employees.

“You’re seeing people leave one district to go to another district within 20 miles of each other because they’re getting paid better at a different district then they were after six years at this other one,” Wofford said.

School districts have responded to the competition with bonuses and extra incentives for new hires. Reynolds is offering $4,000 for select positions, including classified positions like educational assistants and custodians. The district is also offering bonuses for other hard-to-fill positions, like school psychologists and counselors.

With House Bill 4030, school districts have received money from the state to help address recruitment and retention for teachers and other staff.

Wofford, who worked at Rogue Community College before becoming OSEA’s president, wants to see similar support for higher education.

“We are the schools. We truly cook it, clean it, fix it, make it happen,” Wofford said.


Beyond better pay, Wofford wants schools to be safer for staff working in classrooms and monitoring the hallways. She applauded school district programs to help educational assistants become teachers.

“What we need now is an ability to show that this can be a stepping stone,” she said.

Sackman, who works at a Beaverton elementary school, wants to see more opportunities for training, professional development, and mentorship for paraeducators like her.

“Yes, roles and expectations can be different,” Sackman said, “but at the end of the day every person that works for a school district is integral and being a part of the education of our students and our community.”

Staffing shortage on the football field

Alongside the many openings for bus drivers and substitute teachers are openings for coaches.

One district has 12 coach openings in various sports. Others have eight or nine vacancies. Oregon Athletic Coaches Association executive director Rob Younger doesn’t know of any teams unable to form or play due to not having a coach, but he calls what’s happening a shortage.

Younger said it’s not just an Oregon problem either. He recalled hearing about a school district in a “big athletic state” where athletic directors were going to coaching clinics looking for talent.

“Almost like a job fair,” Younger said.

Younger and OACA associate director Chris Knudsen say there are many potential reasons this is happening.

Among them, a decline in teachers who coach.

Younger and Knudsen say there are more demands on teachers that may keep them from coaching, or schools looking for teachers aren’t always thinking of who may make good coaches.

“We’ve seen a real decline of ‘teacher-slash-coach’ … the teaching profession is getting so involved that it’s tough to do both,” Knudsen said.

Younger said it’s a problem he’s noticed in the last five years. When Younger first became a head football coach, his 11 assistant coaches were all a part of the district teaching staff.

“When I retired 24 years later, of our 11 assistant coaches, only two were actually on the district staff,” he said.

The rest were community members.

Younger and Knudsen said low pay and the time commitment to coach are also potential reasons schools are having a hard time filling coaching positions. Some sports, like football, have become year-round jobs that don’t allow time to coach other sports.

This year, both Younger and Knudsen have returned to coaching football. They have 48 and 47 years experience, respectively. Younger said he had to take 20 hours of classes to get certified to be a volunteer coach before stepping on a field.

He added that some don’t take jobs out of fear of lawsuits “if a coach says something that is interpreted the wrong way,” or because of added pressure on coaches from parents.

Younger and Knudsen have been aware of the coaching shortage for several months now. So they’re doing something that the state officials association started recently: a recruitment and retention campaign.

“We’re losing coaches at a greater rate than we’re recruiting them,” Younger said. Experienced coaches are retiring.

They’ve gathered information from current coaches about hiring concerns and plan to share information next April. They’re working on a curriculum for schools to use to promote coaching and officiating.

With officiating, they’re “trying to get our student athletes who love football, love basketball, love softball, to go back and work officiating youth programs in their communities,” Younger said.

Younger and Knudsen stress that though there are needs for coaches in Oregon schools, the priority should be recruiting good coaches rather than just filling a gap.

“Let’s get quality people in the profession that are going to actually provide a really positive experience for student athletes,” Younger said.