More than 100 Philly students protested against education cuts in early October. One of their grievances was about how a lack of substitutes forced other teachers to work extra.

When the school district of Philadelphia contracted with Source4Teachers to provide substitute teachers in June, it gave the company a list with about 1,100 names of subs. These men and women had subbed for the district at least once during the previous year. Some of them, like a teacher who lives in Mt. Airy and had taught full-time for decades and subbed in his retirement, considered substitute teaching a passion.

But the daily pay offer he received was about 37 percent of what he and other veteran substitutes like him were used to making.

Months later, the school district is experiencing a substitute teacher crisis. Long-time subs are holding out because of the lower pay and for not wanting to feel like scabs. Full-time teachers work extra to makeup for the absences of subs. Teachers and union leaders blame the school district for not realizing early on that lower pay rates would lead to dismal numbers of willing substitutes, and for not terminating its relationship with Source4Teachers.

“It really feels as though this is Alice in Wonderland,” said the Mt. Airy teacher, who asked his name not be used for this article because of family connections with the school district. “It’s totally insane, stupid and evil wrapped into one little package.”

Yesterday, according to Source4Teachers, the fill-rate for substitute teachers was 26 percent. That’s not far above the 11 percent of substitute positions filled when school started in September, and is about the same as late October, when Source4Teachers began increasing pay rates to lure more subs. Source4Teachers had promised to have a 75 percent fill rate by September and 90 percent by January. The fill rate last year, when the district worked with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to find subs as it had for many years, was about 60 percent.    

In September, district superintendent William R. Hite said the partnership with Source4Teachers was in jeopardy. But the district has yet to take action. Fernando Gallard, a spokesperson for the district, did not respond to multiple interview requests.

“The only thing I can think of is they are pleased with this level of failure,” said Amy Roat, a Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences teacher and member of the Caucus of Working Educators of the PFT. “I think everybody knew all summer that if you paid someone a fraction of a rate to do a difficult job you wouldn’t attract someone to do it.”

In early June, Philly subs had reason to think this school year would be like those of previous years when it contracted with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The Mt. Airy sub above got a form letter that basically said, “we’ll see you in September.” A few weeks later the School District changed course, notifying subs it would no longer be supervising the substitute teacher program and that they would have to apply with Source4Teachers.   

An information letter came from the company. It was offering a daily rate of $90 or $110 for all subs.

Based on that rate, only newcomers would be getting a good deal. The school district had previously offered first-time subs with certification $75. Veteran subs — those who had subbed for at least 22 days — wouldn’t be getting nearly as much. According to a contract with the PFT, rates for those would be upwards of $150, depending on their education level and experience. No wonder only about 200 of the 1,100 subs from last year signed on with Source4Teachers.

Joshua Hantman, who had subbed for 13 years, said he was making about $170 a day and working every day last year. He did not apply when he found out about the new pay rate. The Mt. Airy teacher was making about $239 a day last year.    

“Once again the teaching profession is being undervalued,” he said. “We are the whipping boys of society.”

The low fill rate has likely been more costly for full-time teachers than the district. The school district didn’t have to pay the $34 million sum up front. The contract, which the Notebook posted online last month, shows that it pays Source4Teachers based on the amount of positions it fills. The amount of $34 million over two years was estimated on Source4Teachers reaching a higher fill rate.

The real cost has been not having substitutes and forcing other full-time teachers to fill in for absent teachers during their break periods. Roat said those full-time teachers must work extra at home to make up for the loss of time during the school day, causing undue stress.    

“Usually,” Roat said, “teachers aren’t saying they’re completely and utterly exhausted in November.”

Since the early problems, Source4Teachers has increased its rates for veteran substitute teachers. They are now being offered $160 a day if they are returnees from the district and certified. Owen Murphy, a spokesperson with Source4Teachers, said the original rates offered in the summer were comparable to those of neighboring districts. But they weren’t enough to convince subs to join.

“We simply were not recruiting the volume of applicants necessary to be successful,” he said. “Improving the rates is a very material way for Source4Teachers and the District to not only attract quality substitutes, but to demonstrate that we value the work substitutes do.”  

Hantman is considering joining Source4Teachers because of the raise.

“I really loved the job,” he said.

Source4Teachers, said Murphy, has also increased marketing efforts and offered more interviews and group training sessions so people who apply with the organization can start subbing for the school district faster.

According to terms of the contract, the District could drop Source4Teachers at any time for any reason as long as it gives 14 days notice. Roat insists plenty of people would like to see the contract terminated.   

This is the time of year when things could get worse, too. Around November and through the winter, stress levels and sickness levels begin to rise. Subs will be in higher demand than they’ve been already.

“They could turn this ship around,” Roat said of the school district, “but they don’t want to.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...