State shutdown would freeze teacher certification, gum up school districts’ summer hiring

Juneau kids play on the playground in front of Harborview Elementary School on Wednesday.

Juneau kids play on the playground in front of Harborview Elementary School on Wednesday. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

Alaska teachers have to be certified by the state before they can teach. So every year, the state Department of Education evaluates thousands of applications for teacher certification. This summer, about 50 of those applications could come from Juneau School District.

Ted VanBronkhorst, head of the district’s human resources department, said they will mostly come from “our teachers who are current employees and are applying for renewals. We have about 30 or so in that category.”

He said the district also has about 20 open positions that they will be hiring teachers for.

Ted VanBronkhorst in his Juneau School District office on Wednesday.

Ted VanBronkhorst heads the Juneau School District’s human resources department. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

“If they come from out of state, then they’d need to apply for an Alaska certification,” VanBronkhorst said.

But legislators’ inability to agree on a state budget could make it harder to approve those certifications in time for the first day of class.

Sondra Meredith works in the Department of Education’s Teacher Certification Office. She said it typically takes about six weeks to check a teacher’s credentials.

“The other part of the process that will also be extracted would be the actual background clearance piece, which can take as much as 60 days,” she said.

When teachers apply for a certification, Meredith’s office asks the Department of Public Safety to check their backgrounds against state and  FBI records. She said the background check can lengthen the vetting process by a couple of weeks, or even a month.

If lawmakers don’t pass a budget before July 1, state offices will close. That means Meredith won’t go to work, so teachers who have questions about their applications or need to fix mistakes won’t be able to get help with the process, and dozens of applications will get stuck at the worst possible time.

“Summer is the busiest time for our section for processing of applications,” Meredith said.

She said the amount of mail her office received between May 1 and August 31, 2016, was almost half the mail they got in a year’s time. Most of that mail was from teachers applying to be certified.

There is one saving grace.

If there is a shutdown, once a budget is passed and state offices reopen, Meredith said her office can give teachers a temporary certificate. This is often done to get teachers into classrooms when their certifications are taking too long. The applications just have to pass the office’s initial review process. Teachers who send in applications after a shutdown would have a tougher time.

“If we have a lot of applications piled up, we can’t even do that first review of those applications in order to issue even something that’s provisional,” Meredith said.

The temporary certifications make Joshua Gill with the Lower Kuskokwim School District less worried about certifications stalling.

“Even if we do get a state shutdown, hopefully, it won’t last too long and we’ll only be behind for a short period of time,” Gill said.

But, Christine Ermold with Kenai Peninsula Borough School District isn’t as optimistic for some of her teachers. She thinks about 60 teachers who need to get their certificates renewed within the next two months will be fine.

“Because we at least know that they’re eligible for their renewal,” Ermold explained. “The ones that I’m really worried about are our new hires.”

Every year, her district hires 70 to 90 new teachers. She said some of them, especially those from out of state, may not have even applied for their certifications.

On top of that, because the Legislature hasn’t passed a budget, her district has a hiring freeze on about 30 positions.

“Because of that, they haven’t yet been able to pursue a priority processing of their teacher certificate,” Ermold said.

A shutdown could put those teachers in a worse position because they wouldn’t even get a job offer until a budget passes.

Legally, teachers who don’t have their certifications by the first day of school can only teach as substitutes for 19 days until a state certification is approved.

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