Back in the 1960s, the term “Kelly Girl” was shorthand for any temporary office worker who filled in for an absentee receptionist, secretary, file clerk or other office worker. In more recent years, male and female Kelly temps have become a major part of the global workforce, including those who teach reading, writing and arithmetic in the public schools. Kelly Educational Services is now the largest private provider of substitute teachers in the nation.
The annual cost of supplying the Burlington School District with substitute teachers has increased by 23 percent since 2007, according to a July article in the Burlington Free Press. Although the article suggested increased absenteeism among teachers was to blame for the difference, the primary reason for the higher cost was actually buried in the story: Starting in January 2008, Burlington eliminated its substitute-coordinator position and contracted Kelly to find replacements when their teachers call in sick.
Year over year, the district’s cost of providing subs has risen by more by than $103,000 — from $443,278 in 2007-08 to $546,796 in 2008-09.
But does that one line item tell the whole story? Superintendent Jeanne Collins doesn’t think so. She acknowledges that switching to Kelly cost the district more money than administering the program in-house — Kelly gets $120 per day for each sub it puts in the classroom, $85 of which goes to the sub. The net, $35 per sub, adds up in a district that last year averaged 144 subs per week in 10 schools, to a weekly total of $5040.
Collins says it’s not a fair comparison. The district is no longer paying a full-time substitute coordinator’s salary. It’s also saving on expenses associated with recruiting subs, conducting criminal-background checks, providing training and managing their payroll.
There’s another consideration: In the past, the district was filling absentee positions only about 70 percent of the time. Under Kelly, that classroom “fulfillment rate” now exceeds 95 percent.
“In our cost analysis, it appears to be a break-even project, with less loss of instructional time to students,” Collins adds.
How do Kelly’s substitute teachers compare to those of the previous system, in terms of quality? It depends upon whom you ask. According to Collins, “Kelly has been great to work with … We’ve had very high subs come through.”
In fact, Kelly Educational Services claims that its own standards exceed those of the state and the district and include behavioral interviews, criminal-background checks through a nationwide sex-offender registry, and pre-employment training in classroom management.
However, two Burlington teachers, who asked not to be identified, were less enthusiastic about the subs they’ve seen come through Kelly. As one teacher put it, “With Kelly, it’s always a gamble. Sometimes we get really quality folks, sometimes it’s a ‘lost day.’”
Fred Lane, who chairs the Burlington School Board, acknowledges that the larger issue of teacher absenteeism is something that all districts in Vermont, including Burlington, wrestle with constantly. According to the district’s own figures, about 25 percent of all teacher absences are due to mandated training, continuing-ed classes or training required by the No Child Left Behind Act. Additionally, many educational grants come with strings attached that require teachers to be out of the classroom.
In the meantime, he says the district is taking steps to save money on subs wherever possible. For one, when predictable extended absences occur, such as for maternity leaves, the district now fills those positions internally rather than outsourcing the work to Kelly. And, Lane says, the district is looking for other ways to keep “balancing the need to give students the best instruction possible with the cost of getting people in front of the classroom.”