Juneau-Douglas High School teacher Laury Scandling had a busload of students ready to go on a retreat when she was told there wasn't a substitute teacher for her other class.
"I was completely shocked and very upset," Scandling told the Juneau School Board last week.
The school scrambled and used the high school's one instructional assistant to fill in for Scandling. With a shortage of substitutes, that sort of last-minute arrangement is becoming more common in the school district. Teachers said it affects the quality of education.
"It's really difficult on students when someone shows up at the last minute and has no idea what's going on," Scandling said.
When substitutes aren't available, schools have used instructional and special-education assistants, clerical staff, teachers during their preparation time and student teachers getting their master's degrees.
"Our members are pulled away from their job to substitute," said Laura Mulgrew, president of the Juneau Education Support Staff, which includes instructional and special-education assistants and clerical staff. "And then their jobs are left, and they still have to do their own jobs, so there is a problem."
School district administrators are looking at ways to attract more substitutes and reduce the number of days they're needed.
About 50 people are registered with the school district as substitutes, which is less than half the number in the past, said Human Resources Director Patti Carlson. Not all of those are available on a given day or are willing to teach in the secondary schools, she said.
It's common to need 30 to 40 substitutes a day, Carlson said. Staff may be ill, taking time off, traveling with sports teams, or attending meetings.
"It is a major problem," said Sue Clifton, principal at Floyd Dryden Middle School. "It's to the point where we're almost afraid to plan some staff development things that we really need, to go with our accountability plan."
Professional in-services are important for teachers, said Harborview Elementary Principal Bob Dye. But a few times he's had to pull back teachers because a substitute wasn't available.
Teachers are waiting to hear whether the school district will hold in-services during the contract day, or pay teachers to hold them after school, said Sheryl Hall, president of the Juneau Education Association, the teachers' union.
If teachers are substituting during their prep time, or training after-school, it takes away from their preparation for the next day's classes, she said.
A generally good economy may have made it harder to recruit substitutes, school district officials said. The school district is considering raising the pay for substitutes, said Superintendent Gary Bader.
"We're not certain we could make a meaningful enough increase in pay to attract more substitutes, but it is under review," he said. "The issue is finding the funds."
Substitutes are now paid $79 a day if they don't have a teaching certificate, or $100 a day if they do. The only requirements are to be at least 18 and pass a criminal-background check.
Substitute teacher Sheila Barrett didn't hesitate when asked what would help attract more subs. "Oh, I think if they raised the pay."
Many substitutes are mothers who need before- and after-school care for their own children when they work, Barrett said. After deducting taxes and child-care expenses, $79 starts to look more like $30 for a day's work.
The school district also is trying to reduce the number of times scheduled meetings require teachers to be out of the classroom. And it is coordinating meetings so they aren't all on the same day, which strains the pool for substitutes.