A shortage of school psychologists and other highly trained specialists is making state and local school districts reconsider how they fill their special education departments — and in some cases has driven administrators to new extremes when it comes to hiring staff.

“Folks are paying bonuses,” said John Klaber, executive director of Minnesota Administrators for Special Education. “I’m aware of districts that may even pay moving expenses. And when you think about that, wow! You usually hear about that in the private sector.”

Other school districts are hiring teachers or paraprofessionals and then paying for them to get licensed, Klaber said. They’re heading to job fairs and local colleges looking for candidates, which several years ago would have been unheard of.

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Some even fork over “headhunting fees” to private placement firms or have started searching for candidates out of state.

“The experience that we’re having trying to find school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, (occupational therapists) and (physical therapists) — any number of folks with specialized skills — is being mirrored across the state,” Klaber said. “It’s a very hard time for school districts to find people to fill their open positions.”

The shortage has taken a toll. Erin Toninato, special education director at the Riverbend Education District in New Ulm, Minn., has been looking for a new school psychologist since March. She’s posted the position on every online job board in the area, but still has not had any luck finding a licensed candidate.

“It’s a high-demand area and there aren’t enough graduating from college,” she said. “… I’m still hopeful I’ll be able to find someone before mid-year, but would have liked to have someone in place this month.”

She’s also been contacting local colleges, among them Minnesota State University, in hopes of finding soon-to-be graduates that might be willing to work for her.

But professor Kevin Filter, internship coordinator for MSU’s school psychology program and former president of the Minnesota School Psychologists Association, said he’s feeling the crunch as well.

Because doctoral programs such as MSU’s only graduate five or six new school psychologists a year, there aren’t enough to fill all the open spots, Filter said. In turn, the professor also is having a hard time placing interns.

“I need to place my second-year students for practice and supervision under these school psychologists,” Filter said. “And I’m having a hard time because they don’t have enough psychologists or the ones they do have are new.”

It doesn’t help that the trend isn’t local, he said. School districts from all over Minnesota have called MSU begging for new graduates only to be told there aren’t enough.

It can also be hard to sway students into working for schools, Klaber said. More and more of them are opting for the world of private practice, in many cases because they want to avoid long hours of paperwork. He estimated special education teachers spend 25 to 30 percent of each day filling out due process forms, which are used to track students’ progress and show the district is in compliance with various state and federal laws and regulations.

“Many students are saying ‘I’d rather spend my day and my time working with clients,'” Klaber said. “And they go into private practice.”

Toninato isn’t the only one who has had a hard time finding staff.

Both Julie Ladwig of Waseca Public Schools in Waseca, Minn. and Kris Tolzmann of United South Central Schools in Wells, Minn. recently hired school psychologists after searching for them for several months.

Each of the special education directors said they had a hard time finding ones willing to work in rural Minnesota. Ladwig said not only do many newly trained graduates want to work in larger cities, many school districts are employing more school psychologists than they did in the past.

That’s likely because they are a vital part of many district’s special education teams and contribute so highly to students’ success. Without a psychologist, school districts cannot assess kids with special needs and get them the help they need, Tolzmann said. That could include children with autism, attention deficit disorder, Asperger’s, dyslexia or other disabilities. The psychologists also work with the rest of the student body, offering counseling as it is called for.

“The importance of having them on staff is they give additional support to the staff that’s already here,” Tolzmann said. “They also work very closely with families and students and it’s so important to have that cohesion between home and school.”

JoAnne May, in charge of human resources at Mankato Public Schools in Mankato, Minn., said the school district also just hired a new psychologist. There were five applicants, all of whom were licensed.

“We advertised for school psychologists last spring and had a sufficient number of qualified applicants, so we did not have a problem there,” May said. “But generally special education teachers are sparse.”

May said the school occasionally hires special education teachers with special or variant licenses granted by the state, but said the teachers are still licensed to teach and usually have experience with special education students.

In New Ulm, Toninato said speech language pathologists are also in short supply, which has forced her to consider some creative staffing solutions.

Teletherapy — using videoconferencing to provide services — could change the face of special education, she said. In rural areas where specialists spend a lot of time on the road traveling between school buildings or work for several school districts, it could even help stretch staff. It’s something Toninato wants to start training staff on and maybe even soon implement.

“I think we really need to start thinking outside of the box on how we can use technology,” Toninato said. “That could really be the future of special education.”

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