MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight speaks during a press conference in Rockville Monday morning. (Caitlynn Peetz)

Montgomery County Public Schools leaders say they’re making progress in filling vacant staff positions in the run-up to the first day of school, but as hundreds of positions remain unfilled, the district will turn to substitutes, often retirees, to help ease the strain. 

During a press conference Monday, MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight said there are 246 full-time teacher openings with 89 candidates in the approval process and “likely to be hired.” 

That’s compared to 396 open positions July 20, she said. 

There are an additional 400-plus open support staff positions with 83 candidates in the approval process. 

Even if all of the candidates in the queue are hired, there would still be more than 450 openings to fill with three weeks until the first day of classes on Aug. 29. 

For positions that aren’t filled by then, McKnight said MCPS will rely heavily on its pool of about 3,500 substitute teachers, particularly those who are retired MCPS employees and “have the training to come in and help.” 

“Our substitute teachers are key in helping us to get the year started when there are not enough teachers who are permanently hired,” McKnight said. “We have, again, a robust cadre of substitute teachers who are trained to come in … and serve until the full-time position is [filled]. Our commitment is to continue to work to hire that full-time teacher.” 

MCPS Director of Certification and Staffing Travis Wiebe said the district this year will expand a “permanent substitute” pilot, started last school year, in which a pool of substitutes was tabbed to work every “planned school day” through the end of the academic year. The substitutes are assigned to whatever school has the most need on a given day. He did not say to what degree the program would be expanded. 

In its first year, 52 substitute teachers participated in the pilot program across 19 schools. 

Wiebe said the “top areas” in which MCPS has vacancies are special education staff members, elementary school teachers and school psychologists. 

Asked how MCPS plans to ensure students in special education programs and English language learners — who generally struggled more during virtual classes held during the coronavirus pandemic and have different needs than their peers — aren’t disproportionately affected by the staffing shortages, McKnight again said retirees stepping in to temporarily fill vacancies will be important. She also said MCPS is “looking at contracted work” to see if there are any other opportunities. 

McKnight, who repeatedly emphasized that staffing shortages are a problem across the country, said MCPS has not and does not plan to increase class sizes to reduce the need for more teachers. 

MCEA response 

McKnight was joined on Monday morning by the leaders of two unions representing MCPS employees — one representing administrators and the other for support staff. Missing from the press conference was Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents the district’s roughly 14,000 teachers. 

McKnight said Martin was “unavailable” to join. In a text message, Martin said she was out of the state. 

MCEA, however, released a statement following the press conference, chiding MCPS leadership for waiting so long to hold a press conference about the staffing shortages before. 

“We cannot help but wonder: why only now is the superintendent expressing a sense of urgency about the shortage of school personnel?” the statement said. “MCEA has been warning Dr. McKnight, MCPS, and the Board of Education for many months that the exodus of teachers and other staff poses trouble for staffing in the 2022-2023 school year.” 

The statement said teachers are burnt out and unable to maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

It also pointed to recent “involuntary transfers” of staff members, in which they were reassigned to different schools to address staffing shortages and fluctuating enrollment. 

The teachers union says the moves violate its contract with the school system. MCPS disagrees.

In a statement Monday afternoon, MCPS spokesman Chris Cram said the district “values our relationship and ongoing collaboration” with the union. 

“Collectively we have one goal and that is a fully staffed school system providing an excellent education for all students,” Cram wrote. “This is work we must do together — as one — for our kids. It is difficult but important work that our teachers, support professionals and administrators do. … It is because of them, our excellent employees, that students will thrive in their future.”