Charleston Teachers Alliance director Jody Stallings said support staff is vital for schools | Photo by Rūta Smith

At a time when South Carolina legislators are passing two billion dollar tax cuts, Lowcountry teachers are working outside the classroom to keep their schools running — serving lunches, covering each others’ classes, cleaning classrooms and even driving buses — in the absence of vital support staff.

“At the start of the 2021-22 school year, we had probably five teachers driving school buses for all three school levels in the district,” said a high school teacher in the Berkeley County School District who preferred to remain unnamed. “School staff shortages go well beyond just teachers.”

Currently, her school has teachers and administrators serving and ringing up lunches for students during their own lunch breaks. And this issue isn’t confined to her school in particular. Other teachers in the area tell similar stories of taking on additional jobs due to the lack of cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers and secretarial workers.

As of November 2021, South Carolina was short approximately 750 school bus drivers, according to Ryan Johnson, chief communications officer for the S.C. Department of Education (SCDE). The gap represents 14% of the state’s 5,600 state-owned bus fleet. 

And the state’s broken record of shortages keeps playing, as one of the biggest forces behind the problem remains the simple fact of low pay. “Certified staff salaries are still staggeringly low — custodial work is still at about $10 per, and you can get more than that working at Wendy’s,” said Charleston Teacher Alliance director Jody Stallings. “That’s a big part of it. It’s so hard to find that support staff, and that’s the kind of staff you need.”

The state Department of Education invested a portion of its funds from the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to bump teacher pay in the state, Johnson told Statehouse Report, Charleston City Paper’s sister publication, in a statement. 

“Prior to the start of the 2022 legislative session, the SCDE submitted a budget request that includes a $162 million increase in teacher salary for the 2022-2023 fiscal year,” Johnson said. “Superintendent [Molly] Spearman challenged the General Assembly to raise starting teacher pay to $40,000 during our agency’s budget hearing in January. The House Ways and Means Committee included this in their budget that [moved] to the House floor [Monday].”

But the legislation does not include language pertaining to support staff, a glaring issue, according to the South Carolina Education Association (SCEA), an education advocacy group.

“In South Carolina, in a time when we have all this money … we’re not taking care of the people that run our state,” said SCEA President Sherry East. “We need to take a hard look at what we value in South Carolina and ask, ‘Do we value our state workers, our teachers and the people that make living here safe and give us an educated workforce?’ Because from what I’m seeing, we do not.”

And, East added, the shortages of support staff are only making it harder for teachers to convince themselves to stay in the classroom, at a time when the state is already facing record highs for classroom vacancies.

A November 2021 report from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement (CERRA) found about 6,900 of the state’s total reported 56,166 full-time and part-time teachers from the 2020-21 school year — roughly 12% of the teacher population — did not return to a position in  the same district this year. That represents a 15.5% increase compared to departures reported last year. 

Gaps in other support staff positions are difficult to measure, however, as needs vary greatly year by year, sources say.

Between October 2021 and February 2022, 977 teachers throughout the state left their classrooms, risking license suspensions, contract breaches and more, according to East. And, she said, her office gets multiple calls daily from teachers planning to quit at the end of the school year, when contracts official expire. 

“A teacher’s working conditions are your child’s learning conditions,” East said. “If we want to do what’s best for our children, we need to fix the working conditions in our schools. They’re so unbearable, 977 people left their job — and it’s hard for a teacher to leave mid-year. That’s alarming.“

The recent exodus puts teacher vacancies in the state at nearly 1,100, East said. The problem is likely to get worse. The state has outsourced more than 1,000 teaching positions to international teachers, according to a new, unpublished report from the state ​​Office of Educator Services. These teachers can only stay on work visas for two to three years, sources said. 

“So you really have more than 2,000 empty classrooms in my mind,” East added. 

The Berkeley County teacher is one of many who is leaving the profession after this school year. “I love my students, but after teaching for seven years, working multiple jobs outside the classroom and watching the situation worsen, I’m burnt out,” she said. “I have to think of my own mental health too.” Her complaints about teaching echo the sentiments of other teachers: underpaid, overworked and a lack of support from administrators, districts and the state.

“If the state isn’t willing to fund education further, then the districts aren’t willing to push back because they don’t want to lose the funding that they have, which means principals can’t make decisions like offering more mental health services or helping students re-acclimate to being in school,” the Berkeley county teacher said.

“I think I would be able to come to terms with [working outside of school hours] if I was compensated for it appropriately,” she said. “But I’ve been teaching for seven years and just now after a step increase, I made less than $40K.”

The Charleston County School District (CCSD) recently unveiled an incentive program offering student teachers up to $2,500 in bonuses if they transition into teaching positions after finishing their student teaching program. 

It isn’t yet known how many vacant positions will need to be filled in CCSD at the end of the year, but last year there were between 500 and 600 vacancies, according to CCSD reports.

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.