Facing teacher shortage, Lake County special education district freezes enrollment

The Special Education District of Lake County is freezing enrollment, as the district grapples with a staffing shortage that teachers say has put their safety at risk.

The temporary freeze, enacted by the district's executive board last week, will last until at least 90% of staff positions across the district are filled, officials said.

"We have seen a significant increase this year in (incidents) requiring outside interventions," Superintendent Valerie Donnan said, adding that officials have been in contact with Lake County law enforcement about the problem.

As of Sept. 10, the district had 108 job openings, a gap that has prompted teachers to file grievances against the administration through their union. Donnan said the openings are due to "a lot of retirements" in recent years.

The special education district is a cooperative of 31 Lake County school districts that serves about 1,300 students facing physical, emotional and other learning challenges at seven schools and other educational facilities.

Union President Rebecca Slye said the grievances filed by the union concern teacher safety.

"Our contract calls for the administration to provide a safe environment for learning," Slye said. "We don't believe that is happening. We believe that there is not sufficient staff for the amount of students in attendance."

District administrators say they have taken steps to fill the vacancies, including recruiting retirees and hosting a job fair. But it hasn't been enough. Among the additional solutions proposed at last week's executive board meeting: a shortened day, random attendance based on a lottery, attendance in shifts, and closing programs temporarily.

"Many school districts are struggling to fully staff," board member Jason Lind said. "The teacher shortage has been in the making for many years."

Of all the schools in the district, Gages Lake School has been hardest hit by the shortage, operating at just 71% of full staffing.

"Right now we continue our recruiting efforts," Donnan said. "We've already seen some of our recruiting efforts have positive results."

Slye said teachers believe the problem lies with the administration, saying they misjudged the number of staff members needed to work with students.

"Our members are fed up with the administration's lip service to our safety and staffing concerns," she said. "Although we are trying to work with them in a cooperative manner, they seem to be in a state of disarray."

Safety concerns at Gages Lake School are so severe that teachers have suggested suspending programs there until a sufficient number of trained staff members are in place.

"We really want what is best for students and staff," Slye said. "We want to see the district succeed and we will be behind this until it gets resolved."

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