WASHINGTON - Arizona officials say there are at least 1,000 vacant teacher positions to fill, with just weeks left until the school year starts around the state.
It's not the first time school districts have found themselves scrambling to hire teachers in Arizona, where officials say low salaries, lack of support and high turnover rates combine to make summers a stressful time for administrators.
At Cave Creek Unified School District, Superintendent Debbi Burdick said, "It's bad."
Burdick said she is trying to fill six teaching slots, and the district's governing board even approved a $4,000 signing bonus for qualified special education or middle school math teachers. But she's still looking.
"We're concerned, and for many of the positions we have open we do not even have one applicant," Burdick said.
In the Kingman Unified School District, four positions remain open going into the first day of school on Thursday. The school district employs 380 teachers.
"Our situation, we're a little better than last year," said Kingman Unified School District Superintendent Roger Jacks. "That's really good, and we're in hopes that those positions will get filled shortly. We have some applicants."
At Kingman Academy of Learning, the charter school district sits fully staffed with 75 teachers, with two weeks to go until the first day of school.
"It's pretty normal (being fully staffed). It took us longer to find and complete our staff than ever before. I'm seeing part of that teacher shortage," said Kingman Academy of Learning district administrator Susan Chan.
While the situation in Kingman has improved from previous years, a shortage of teachers statewide has been consistent and with systemic concerns. In response, the Arizona Department of Education created an Educator Retention and Recruitment Task Force to address "rising concerns regarding the shortage of effective teachers and high turnover rates of educators in Arizona schools."
That task force's report in January cited many of the same problems that educators around the state point to: relatively low pay, high turnover rates that result in little mentorship of young teachers, and an increasing workload for an increasingly under-appreciated job.
And the situation is likely to get worse, with 25 percent of the state's roughly 60,000 teachers eligible to retire within the next five years, said Cecilia Johnson, the state Education Department's associate superintendent of highly effective teachers and leaders.
Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, cited the budget as a major concern among the vacancies.
Vega said some teachers haven't had a raise in six or seven years. The state routinely ranks near the bottom when it comes to per-pupil spending, she noted.
Johnson said the average salary for a teacher in Arizona is $47,000 - well below the $54,000 national average - and an average starting salary in the state is $32,000.
"I personally don't necessarily believe that teachers become teachers because of the pay," Vega said. "They become teachers because they want to make a difference in impact."
Still, she said, it can be difficult to "stay in the field and not even receive any type of cost of living, salary increase, or any type of increase, and just trying to live off a certain income for 15 years.
"It is difficult. It's challenging. And I think many teachers just get frustrated and many teachers have second jobs."
That difficulty could be behind a drop in the number of students majoring in education in college, in turn leading to fewer teachers entering the profession.
Johnson said that once in the profession, teachers face greater accountability requirements and more demands on their time than before. Those demands "require them to take less and less time in teaching what they believe as experts should be taught," she said.
Burdick said that we still "just don't seem to have the infrastructure or the support," resulting in teachers going elsewhere.
"We are starting to see teacher recruitment to be more problematic than it has been," said KAOL's Chan. The charter district had to replace 10 of its 75 teachers this year.
"I think overall it is a nationwide teacher shortage, specifically in Arizona. Arizona does not pay well," Chan said. "States around us pay better. If I'm young and out of college, why am I not going to Nevada? I don't think colleges are putting out as many teachers as they used to."
Kingman Academy of Learning recruits via the Department of Education website and directly from universities.
Kingman Unified School District, which had a turnover of 60 positions, had to rely on different recruiting processes to fill in the gaps.
"We've been working really hard to fill those positions. We use an online recruiting service, Teachers-Teachers.com, and have been fairly successful," said Jacks. "We've also expanded our recruiting process to the Philippines. We're hiring some Filipino teachers: five returning from last year and adding four more."
If districts can't find full-time teachers, they are often forced to rely on long-term substitutes, which presents other problems. Parents are "very concerned that their students aren't getting the quality education they would expect when we have so many vacancies," Johnson said.
But that doesn't mean the district will hire anybody just to have a full-time teacher.
"We're extremely picky in our district. We will not hire someone just to put a body in front of students," Burdick said. "We expect someone to be of excellent quality."
Jamie Cochran from the Cronkite News Service contributed to this story.