Arizona school districts must not only compete with an increased number of charter and private schools for teachers and administrators, but a growing number of contract companies that hire health professionals desperately needed to provide state-required services to students.
A nationwide shortage in the area of speech pathology in particular has meant many districts are turning to contract companies to meet the state-required obligation of providing services to children, some as young as 3 years old.
It's simply a matter of supply and demand, said Arizona Education Association president John Wright.
"It's the market at work. There is a market for these professionals that is quite robust outside of public schools and the school system," he said. "Until we can compete at the school district level with the professional salaries available to those individuals, you're going to see contractors in a variety of situations."
In fact, the companies recruiting these young professionals are offering not only competitive salaries, but trips to Hawaii and 100 percent company-paid insurance.
Amy Hyman is vice president of personnel for Student Therapies and Resource Services, a company that contracts with some East Valley school districts, including Kyrene and Chandler. The company contracts out speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, special-education teachers and more to Phoenix, Tucson and outlying areas. It has about 160 employees.
Hyman said employees come to work for the company for a number of reasons. Some like the idea of not being tied to one place for a long time. Some are testing out their fields of work or the city, and the company allows them that flexibility.
"For everyone it's very different," Hyman said. "We have less employees so we can give a more personal touch. We are able to send birthday cards each year. For some it's that personal contact."
Hyman, who came to the company from the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix, said there are more contract companies here than just six years ago.
"Businesses always crop up when there's a need," she said.
An analysis of these contracts from East Valley districts shows the growing costs of providing these services.
Last year, the 73,000-student Mesa Unified School District spent more than $1.7 million on contracts for physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, bilingual speech pathologists, nursing services and certified occupational therapist assistants. In the 2005-06 school year, the contracts totaled nearly $1.4 million, even though the district had 1,600 more students then.
The Tempe Elementary School District, which had 13,256 students last year, spent about $1.1 million on contracts for speech pathologists, sign language interpreters, occupational therapists, music therapists and psychologists. In the 2005-06 school year, the district spent about $630,000, and had about 500 more students. About one-third of its speech pathologists this year are from contract companies.
Kathleen Seabury, supervisor of special-education in Tempe Elementary, said it's hard to compete with the contract companies when recruiting speech pathologists because they are able to offer higher salaries, but she tries to emphasize other perks to district employment.
"I think the people who are noncontractors, they stay because we have a really good retirement system. There's more consistency. They're here year after year after year. A contract employee may be at a different district year after year," she said
BUCKING THE TREND
Two East Valley districts are trying to buck the trend.
Scottsdale has gone from having 20 contract employees providing health care services four years ago to five this year, with only one being a speech pathologist. It was a simple change, executive director for human capital Jeff Thomas said. The district determined that by putting $200,000 more into salaries for speech pathologists, it would save $400,000 in contract services.
The speech pathologists - 44 full-time positions - are on the same pay schedule as teachers, plus 15 percent.
C.J. Hronek, the lead speech pathologist with the district, said in addition to the competitive salary, Scottsdale puts a cap on the number of cases pathologists must carry, and brings in extra help when needed.
Chandler Unified School District is in its second year of a new model of delivering speech services. The growing district hired more speech pathology language assistants, trained more teacher assistants and put a focus on speech training at the preschool level to lessen the need for outside contractors.
This year, there are only six speech pathologists on contract, compared to more than double that three years ago, said Diane Bruening, director of special-education for the Chandler district.
Because more emphasis is put on giving students all the services they need - even incorporating speech services into other areas of their day to help move them out of the speech program - the district is serving 600 fewer students than a few years ago.
"We've actually kept our district people. What we've reduced is our need for contract," speech pathologists, Bruening said. "Contract vendors ... are very expensive. The truth is we spent $1.5 million a couple years ago for contract service for speech."
Last year's total was around $700,000, according to the latest numbers released by the district.