Deb Alden had to find five special education teachers this summer, and she had to find them fast.

“It’s been such a crazy shortage. I thought other years it was tough, then I got to this year,” said Alden, special education director in SAD 52, which serves students in Turner, Greene and Leeds.

Typically, she might have one or two openings among the 28 special education teacher slots across six schools. But trying to fill five of them has set off ripple effects throughout the district.

Alden said she begged one retired teacher to come back, but that means the school’s administrative assistant will have to help her out with unfamiliar technology and paperwork. A special education teacher moved from the high school to the middle school, so now all of the high school teachers will have to take on one more class. Alden herself will be the case manager for 15 special education students, and some students in the day treatment program will be moved into mainstream classes.

“There’s not one person in our district that won’t work harder because of this,” Alden said. “They will, because they want to do what is best for the kids. But we will all feel it.”

LONG-TERM PROBLEM GETS WORSE

Maine has long had a shortage of special education teachers, but this year hiring has been harder than ever, according to teachers, superintendents and state officials.

Several factors led to the shortage. For one, there are fewer education graduates in the state to fill entry-level jobs. Entry-level teacher pay, negotiated by local districts, is low, particularly in the northern part of the state, and there are no extra incentives to go into special education, which specialists agree is a difficult, complicated job. Special education teaching positions are frequently filled by first-time teachers, as an entry into general education, and many teachers move on within a few years, creating more turnover than in other specialties.

The shortage is likely to get worse next fall, when new federal rules will start requiring districts to hire only fully certified special education teachers for those students.

Currently, less-than-fully-certified teachers are allowed to be special education teachers in Maine for up to three years while they pursue full certification. Statewide last year, there were 256 of those less-than-fully-certified teachers working, along with 4,504 fully certified special education teachers, according to the Maine Department of Education.

It’s not a new problem, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which has put out an annual nationwide teacher shortage list going back to 1990.

In the early 1990s, Maine listed only special education and foreign languages as shortage areas. Last year, both those categories were still on the list, along with math and science, English as a second language, gifted and talented, industrial arts and librarians.

In Lewiston, Michelle Winslow said she noticed the drop in applicants as the special education director for Geiger Elementary School this summer.

“Oh yes, I live that on a daily basis,” said Winslow, who is now assistant principal at Geiger. She said other special education directors in the state also reported difficulty finding candidates.

“I feel like we’re all in the same boat,” she said.

In the classrooms, there are more special education teachers for fewer special ed students than five years ago, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story because each special education student has different needs, said Jill Adams, executive director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, or MADSEC. Adams works with special education directors in districts all over the state.

The number of special education students has dropped about 2 percent since 2009-10, while overall enrollment has decreased 4.5 percent, according to state data. At the same time, the number of special education teachers in Maine has increased 4 percent and the number of education technicians, who work closely with special education students and assist special education teachers, has increased 2 percent.

Special education students run the gamut from low-level needs, such as having an extra 20 minutes of specialized help each week, to intense one-on-one instruction and care for severely emotionally, physically or mentally challenged students.

DIFFICULT JOB, FEWER GRADUATES

Generally, most special education students are mainstreamed, which means they are in regular classrooms. The classroom teacher leads the entire class, while a special education teacher or ed tech may also be in the classroom depending on the students’ needs. When a classroom has several high-needs special education students in it, there can be multiple adults in the room.

At the farthest end of the needs spectrum, students with significant disabilities who are not ready to be in a mainstream classroom are educated in a public school day program or a public regional program. If a district doesn’t have the resources to care for those children, they may be placed out of district in a private school.

Teachers have to evaluate each student, write up an individual plan, teach the students, oversee ed techs or less-than-fully certified colleagues, fill out state and federal paperwork and meet regularly with students and parents.

“I think it’s a very tough job,” Adams said.

There are also fewer students in colleges studying education, and special education in particular, she said.

There are multiple teacher training colleges in Maine. One of the largest, the University of Maine System, has seen a steady decline in education graduates. Systemwide, the number of degrees in education peaked in 2006-07, with 1,222 graduates. Last year there were 787 education graduates, a decline of 36 percent in under a decade.

In addition to a shortage of special education teachers, districts struggle to hire for other positions related to special education, from education technicians to occupational therapists, speech therapists and other specialists. Adams said many districts have resorted to hiring online services for tele-therapy.

While special education teachers are paid at the same rate as other teachers, negotiated at the local district level, some districts offer financial incentives for certain special education positions that require more specialized skills, such as working at a day treatment facility with the most seriously affected children.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said his district’s new ed tech contract, approved this summer, increased starting wages and added vacation days.

“That’s put us in a stronger position,” Webster said. The district just created a new districtwide special education program to offer special education services to students who were previously placed out of district in private schools. He said that will allow the district to cut costs, from paying about $50,000 per student for out-of-district care to about $30,000 per student under the new program.

The district also hired about 50 special education teachers, drawing some teachers from elsewhere in the state.

Special education costs also have increased. According to state Department of Education data, total special education costs were 15.6 percent of total school expenses statewide in 2014-15, up from 13.5 percent a decade earlier, when there were more special education students to serve. That’s because the kind of needs have increased. Instead of students with dyslexia, there are more students with autism or multiple disabilities, which require more resources – and money – for school services.

STATE WORKING TO ADDRESS ISSUES

Kathy Yardley, dean of education at the University of Maine-Farmington, said Maine faces a looming teacher shortage in many areas. Statistics show that about 30 percent of Maine teachers will retire within the next decade, and she can see the shortage in math and science teachers in her graduating classes.

Farmington had no secondary math graduates this year, she said, and the incoming class has only two students going into math.

“It really is in particular content areas,” Yardley said of the shortage. “English, social studies, elementary education – we have plenty of students. There’s no shortage there.”

But even though there is no shortage, there are fewer qualified teachers even in those areas, she said.

“Schools will tell us that they used to have a couple hundred elementary education applicants, and now it has dropped to 80. They are still getting a large number of applications, but not as many as they used to,” she said.

“The pool (of applicants) was much deeper even 10 years ago,” said Bob Hasson, a former Maine schools superintendent who heads up certification for the state Department of Education.

State officials are working now to come up with a plan to bring all special education teachers to full certification to meet the new regulations next fall.

A multipronged approach could be part marketing – using social media to tell millennials and out-of-state teachers about the teaching jobs here – and targeted recruiting of special education teachers elsewhere, Hasson said.

To fill the gap, the state Department of Education is working with Maine colleges to make it easier for students to get full certification, and the state needs to find “creative ways to grow our own” and retain teachers, said Jan Breton, the department’s director of special services. That might include financial incentives for working in rural locations, loan forgiveness after working in the state for a period of time, or helping pay up front for certification.

“It’s an issue everywhere,” she said. The state has to do “whatever it takes.”