By Richard Sullins |

The Lee County Board of Education in late June rolled out a new plan designed to address the nagging problem of starting school in August with nearly a hundred teacher and support personnel positions vacant across the district.

It’s an issue that has been reported in virtually every school district in the state over the past fifty years, and one that has defied a solution for decades. But local school board leaders have come up with a new approach they hope will turn things around. What makes this new spin different is the way it will use teachers and support personnel already working in Lee County Schools to identify the right people to fill the critical slots that today remain empty.

It’s called the Employee Referral Bonus Plan, and it’s open to teachers and staff employed by Lee County Schools who can recruit the right persons to fill these vacant positions, and if that person recruited actually gets a job within the school system and stays there until at least the end of February of 2024, both the new employee and the current one who referred them could receive one-time cash bonuses of up to $2,000 apiece.

Current Lee County Schools employees are eligible to nominate an individual they know, if the current employee can meet of the following eligibility criteria:

*Must be a certified or classified employee in the Lee County Schools district.
*Must have an annual salary of less than $75,000
*Must not be working in the Finance or Human Resources offices, and
*Must not be a school-based administrator or their spouse.

How it will work

The school board’s plan was reviewed by its Finance Committee on June 20 and recommended for approval to the full board at its meeting ten days later. In the board’s packet of information for the June 30 meeting, the administrative staff noted that “fulfilling essential services for our students is becoming increasingly challenging” and this three-month bonus opportunity is an attempt to address staff vacancies that have been vacant for extended periods.

The referral plan will operate for only three months (July 1 through September 30) of this year and will be capped at payments of no more than $5,000 per person who makes a successful referral, and at $125,000 for the total of all payouts made through the program. Bonuses will be paid to the LCS employee and the new hire in split payments during November and February if the new hire is still employed at the time payments are to be made.

Eligible LCS employees and the newly hired employees will receive bonuses as follows for successful recruits to the district:

$500 for each Classified hire
$1,000 for each Certified hire
$2,000 for each Certified hire at any of the four low-performing schools: J.R. Ingram Elementary, East and West Lee middle schools, and Lee County High School

The program is not seeking teachers in general, but rather is targeted to fill vacancies in specific discipline areas, including teachers in English Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, EC, and Pre-K, excluding CTE, Elective, and Enhancement teachers.

The range of classified employees is considerably wider, and these include Instructional Assistant/Bus Driver; Custodian/Bus Driver; Child Nutrition employees; EC Assistant/Bus Driver; ESL Assistant/Bus Driver; Maintenance; Bus Garage; and Technology.

When the snapshot of vacancies was made on June 30 for the school board’s use, a total of 40 vacant fulltime teaching positions at 16 campuses were reported in the Lee County Schools district. Two-thirds of those vacant positions (27) were reported at the four low-performing schools: JR Ingram, East and West Lee Middle, and Lee County High. It also reported 52 vacancies in classified positions, with Ingram and LCHS again among those reporting the highest numbers. Those positions considered to be classified staff are those that do not need a license or certificate to be considered as eligible for employment at schools or within the system.

The 90-day push to attract and retain employees to fill these vacant positions will be funded by dollars available to the school system as part of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief programs.

The clock has started

This new initiative is the latest attempt by the school board to address the nagging problem of filling long-term vacancies in classroom and important support positions. It’s an issue that expresses itself in two ways: first, in recruiting the best available teachers and support staff to work in the Lee County Schools district and, secondly, in keeping them here.

With the school board’s unanimous approval of the Employee Referral Bonus Plan on June 30, the program is now up and running. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for July 18 and though no agenda has yet been published, an update could be requested or given at that time.

But here’s why filling these long-term vacancies across Lee County’s schools is such a pressing issue today: Faculty and students will go back to school in less than five weeks’ time. A decision by the school board in the spring to move back the starting date for traditional calendar students and faculty from August 28 to 14 means there will be two fewer weeks available to fill any remaining vacancies among the roster of teachers than there have been in previous years.

Still, it’s a wholly different approach with the virtue of never having been tried, and the school board has shown through its first six months of existence that it’s not afraid to throw out convention and try something new.

“I think this is just a great project. I really do,” said Republican school board chair Sherry Womack.

Democratic board member Jamie Laudate expressed his gratitude to Interim Superintendent Dr. Chris Dossenbach for coming up with a new approach to an old problem.

“I’m particularly impressed with the targeted nature of this program, to fill our most difficult positions, and I’m excited about it,” he said.

By the first of October, the school board – and more importantly, the public – will know whether or not the program has had the kind of impact it hopes for. From a financial perspective, it’s a very inexpensive approach. If every dollar in its $125,000 budget were to be spent over the project’s 90-day lifespan, it would still represent just 0.003 percent of the district’s total COVID-19 relief funding.