By the numbers

The following are the daily per diem rates for substitute teachers in the Lowcountry.

Berkeley

Certified teacher: $80

Non-certified teacher: $60

Charleston

Certified teacher: $75

Non-certified teacher: $61

Dorchester 2

Certified teacher: $100

Non-certified teacher: $60

Source: Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester 2 school districts

When teachers at Zucker Middle School were absent this past school year, they often couldn’t find a substitute to cover their classes.

Only about 40 percent of its requests for subs were filled, but that changed to nearly 100 percent after the North Charleston school used a private company to find the teachers.

“The assistant principals spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make the (district) system work with the manpower we had, so (outsourcing) allows them to assume much more of an instructional role,” said Principal Jake Perlmutter.

Charleston County School District leaders want to expand this concept to the entire school district starting this fall. That means all of the approximately 900 district-employed substitute teachers would be offered jobs with Kelly Educational Staffing, a private company that hires and trains temporary staff.

The contract with Kelly would cost nearly $920,000, but district officials said the deal would save about $55,000 annually by not having to pay Medicare, retirement or workman’s compensation claims. The district also would avoid a projected $540,000 expense of providing health care to some of those workers because of the new mandates under the Affordable Care Act.

Still, some county school board members aren’t sold on the proposal, and they said they’re concerned about its cost and the pay for district workers. The per diem for substitute teachers would remain the same; Kelly charges about 40 percent of that per placement.

“What do we get for $1 million that we can’t get on our own?” said board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats. “It doesn’t make sense at first blush as to why we need Kelly Services to save us money. I think the district has to unpack that a little bit, and the board wants to talk about it.”

If Charleston decided to privatize its substitute teacher services, it would be following the lead of other South Carolina school districts, including neighboring Berkeley County, that already have done so.

Why privatize?

Charleston uses a software program that allows teachers to request substitute teachers, and vice versa, and the automated system calls substitute teachers in its database to find someone for the job.

Kelly uses a similar program, except it specializes in that area. The company has local staff as well as a call center dedicated to filling jobs, so when the automated system can’t find someone, one of its employees takes over, said Scott Fitzpatrick, an employment supervisor for Charleston County School District. In Charleston, school staff would have to make those calls until a replacement could be found, or else other school staff would have to cover the absent teachers’ classes.

The annual per diem for substitute teachers would remain the same, and the company would handle the recruitment, training and placement of those workers. The district fills about 89 percent of its substitute jobs, and Kelly would have to maintain a minimum 95 percent average fill rate.

The district pilot tested the company’s services starting in March with Zucker Middle and Morningside Middle.

“We’ve really seen it as a positive,” Fitzpatrick said. “We just know it’s the right thing to do.”

The district projects it would spend $3.4 million, which includes money for Kelly and its substitutes’ daily rate.

Berkeley County started using Kelly Services in 2011-12, and it has resulted in some savings. The district spent $3.6 million on substitutes the year before it started, and it spent $200,000 less this past school year. Its fill rate is at 99 percent.

Human resources director Julie Rogers said principals are grateful for the service because they no longer have to spend time tracking down someone to fill in for absent teachers.

“We just really feel like it has impacted student achievement,” she said. “They do a really good job of training their substitutes. It’s not just a warm body. They get in there and teach.”

Rogers said the most difficult part has been finding teachers for classrooms with specific criteria such as pre-kindergarten, but the company has worked hard to ensure its workers have the required training.

Dorchester 2 uses a Web-based system for its substitutes, and it spent $1.6 million on subs this past school year.

A needed service?

Charleston County School District officials cut the money it gives to schools for substitute teachers in 2011-12, and that allocation hasn’t increased since then. Privatizing the service won’t give schools more access to subs, either, although teachers have said that needs to change.

A 2011-12 Charleston Teacher Alliance survey showed 60.6 percent of respondents said their school’s substitute policy had a negative impact on instruction.

Substitutes aren’t called every time a teacher is absent, and schools come up with plans to cover classes. Zucker Middle, for example, has relied on its teachers to split or cover classes, but even it needs subs when two people on the same team are out on the same day.

Perlmutter said he was apprehensive of Kelly because he likes to be in control of what happens in the building, and the district has had mixed experiences with its outsourcing.

“I was wrong,” he said. “I’m happy with how it shook out.”

Although it worked out well for his students and teachers, he said it’s a worthwhile conversation to discuss whether other schools would see the same benefit.

School board member Chris Collins told his colleagues the district needed to increase the amount it paid substitute teachers. District officials responded that would cost more than they’ve budgeted, but they think Kelly can do a better job than they can.

“We will spend less money and get a higher quality and better outcome than we do now,” said Mike Bobby, the district’s chief of finance, operations and human resources.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.