Baltimore schools opened the year with 87 teacher vacancies, a trend that is not uncommon in the region but comes during a critical year for the system as it embarks on a new student curriculum and teacher evaluation system.
City officials said they are tapping substitutes and other school staff, such as department heads or instructional support teachers, to lead classroom instruction. Electives in student schedules are also being shifted. In rare cases, they said, classes are being combined.
Officials said the vacancies, which decreased to 77 in the second week of the school year, are a "normal and necessary characteristic of the first weeks of school." They said the vacancies would continue through the month as schools' enrollment numbers and budget allocations fluctuate under the district's student-based funding program.
School began Aug. 27.
Schools superintendent Andrés Alonso, who introduced the Fair Student Funding model in 2008, said, "I am concerned whenever any classroom is not taught by a highly qualified teacher, even if it's only for the start of school or for a few days."
But he said the system's philosophies of principal autonomy and school choice for students inevitably resulted in staffing imbalances at the beginning of the school year.
Alonso transferred budgeting and staffing responsibilities — once functions controlled by the central office — to principals. Principals rely on enrollment numbers to figure out how much money they will have to equip their schools with staff and resources, both of which fluctuate until Sept. 30.
Alonso acknowledged that teacher shortages at the beginning of the school year could be mitigated if staffing schools was centrally controlled, as that would allow the system to lock in positions earlier in the summer. But the schools chief said he didn't believe the district would be willing to sacrifice school choice.
"If we are going to respect the principles of Fair Student Funding and school autonomy," he said, "then we have to accept movement in the number of positions and uncertainty at the start of school."
Teacher shortages are not uncommon in larger districts elsewhere in Maryland.
As of Sept. 4, the city school system continued to recruit in areas traditionally short of teachers, such as special education, math, science and foreign languages. Baltimore employs roughly 6,000 teachers, and the vacancies each year make up a small percentage of the total, officials said.
"City Schools does not consider a 1.28% vacancy rate a shortage," the system said in a statement, adding that the figure was instead a "healthy vacancy factor."
Teacher quality experts said that vacancies are common in urban school systems, but added that those systems need to try to establish stability as early as possible.
"Every district has a goal of having their vacancies filled before the first day of school, but given the number of vacancies some of these large, urban districts have to fill … it's not uncommon," said Nancy Waymack, managing director of district policy at the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality.
"But anything over 1 or 2 percent would be something they need to address," she added. "It's very important to have a teacher ready to go, who has been appropriately trained, especially for young children who need to get settled into a routine."
In 2010, in a study on teacher quality in Baltimore, the group identified school — or principal — autonomy as a contributing factor in teacher vacancies.
Under principal autonomy, the report said, "[e]ach year teachers' positions are inevitably cut at one school … and some teachers cannot find positions at other schools." It also noted that the system's budget "appears insufficiently flexible to absorb a fluctuating student enrollment."
Since 2008, the system has spent at least $15 million paying certified educators who do not have permanent placements but can be tapped as substitutes or to fill vacancies in subjects that match their certification.
School officials said the surplus teacher pool dropped from 130 in June to 10 on Sept. 4. The vast majority of the teachers found placements, officials said, and 15 left the district by either retiring or resigning, or because they had a substandard certificate or an expired visa.
The system also shed more than 100 foreign teachers — many of whom were Filipino and filled critical slots in subject areas where the system currently has vacancies. After years of recruiting the teachers from overseas, the district last spring began adhering to labor laws that allow only 65 teachers to be sponsored for green cards.