Preparing for Green Hill High School's opening in August 2020 has been a constant focus for Wilson County Schools, but the biggest challenge may be one that exists beyond the county level.

Multiple area universities such as Middle Tennessee State University are reporting decreased enrollment in their teaching programs, meaning fewer candidates to choose from as the district looks to staff a new building and maintain its existing schools.

At its meeting, the Wilson County Board of Education discussed its plans to address staffing issues, whether in the classroom or on the bus route.

"We've been pretty fortunate that most of the time when we start school, we have most of the positions filled," Deputy Director of Employee Relations Rebecca Owens said. "But if we have somebody that leaves, we have a really hard time filling those positions, especially in … math, special education, chemistry, physics, our world languages such as Spanish, ESL (English as a Second Language) and some of the CTE (Career and Technical Education) classes. We are going to be on a difficult journey this year because we're opening a new high school, but (Principal) Kevin (Dawson) is ready."

Partnerships with Cumberland University and Trevecca Nazarene University, along with other area schools, are a large part of the district's effort to shore up the teacher base.

"We have meetings with (them) every year, talk about what our problems are and what we want to do," Owens said. "One of the things we've talked about is trying to build up a pipeline to get nontraditional students into the program."

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Board member Larry Tomlinson said universities are also concerned about the number of high school graduates entering their education programs and have been willing to work with board members to find solutions, such as encouraging elementary educators to pursue ESL or special education endorsemen.

"The College of Education (at MTSU) is shrinking," Directors of Schools Donna Wright said. "They'd always had a strong presence, but now it's become one of the smaller colleges, and that's not unique to MTSU. You're seeing that at UT Knoxville, you're seeing it at many places that have become known as teacher colonies."

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, the number of freshman college students declaring an education major has fallen from 10% in 2015 to 4.6% as of 2017.

"Looking back at the 2018-19 hiring season, we had 11,351 applicants," Human Resources Supervisor - Certified Personnel Lisa Spencer said, noting that the true number would be lower because of people applying for multiple jobs. "Some of the ways we recruit teachers to our district is that we go out to recruitment fairs at local colleges and universities. We also hold our own career fairs … (and) a lot of social media recruiting. We get a lot of our teachers from recruiting the student teachers (universities) place in our district."

The district also runs a Principal Pipeline program aimed at recruiting leadership from within the school system, and offers a mentorship system for new teachers in an effort to set itself apart from nearby counties.

"(This is) something that's not only unique to Tennessee, but a critical shortage across the country right now," Wright said. "It's heavy over here, but we're competing with Rutherford, Sumner, Davidson County … you go all the way to the state line, north and south, and everyone's hunting for the same people."

Hiring for classified positions like those in the transportation and food service departments has also been an issue for Wilson County Schools, with those positions making up a large part of current staffing needs.

Director of Transportation Jerry Partlow said the department currently has some drivers covering multiple routes even on full attendance days, and workers calling out sick can heavily impact the schedule.

"On Oct. 21, we had three drivers call out," Partlow said. "(That meant) there were five open routes … a grand total of 12 segments that we had to try to cover, and that day we were able to cover them all by using office staff driving, teachers, got a mechanic to drive that day. Oct. 22, we had four drivers off, which constituted seven open routes plus the seven I have to cover every day … we got them all covered with the exception of one."

According to Partlow, potential responses to that issue are not ideal fixes.

"We could look at instituting a parent responsibility zone, where we only get paid from the state for a mile and a half from the school of transportation," he said. "If we did something like that, those parents would have to bring their kids to school. That sounds easy, but there's at least one director of schools that would testify that's not an easy option to sell to the public, much less live through. Our schools are not designed to have people walking to school, and that's just the long and short of it."

Implementing triple start times for buses and allowing them to serve three schools per morning is another option, but Partlow is concerned that it would cost too much money for the school's budget to sustain.

"My drivers are earning more money because they're spending more time on the road out in traffic," he said. "Every week I sign off on time sheets where they've been stuck on I40 or 109 and can't get around. So the easiest thing to do, in my opinion, is to concentrate on hiring individual bus drivers."

The Wilson County Board of Education's next meeting will be held on Dec. 2, with a work session at 5 p.m. followed by the board meeting at 6 p.m.

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