Assistant Superintendent Ellis Talks to the Board About Hiring in Saline Schools; Job Fair Next Week

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Curt Ellis, Saline Area Schools assistant superintendent of human resources, addresses the Saline Board of Education.

The Saline Area Schools district is looking for 10 food service employees, 10 paraeducators, five bus drivers, five custodians as it prepares to return to five-day-a-week, in-person learning.

"As of today, on July 13, my single biggest concern is on the operational side," Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Curt Ellis told the Board of Education Tuesday.

The district is also seeking employees for after-school care and the building and grounds department.

To that end, the district has scheduled a job fair from 9 a.m. to noon, Wednesday, July 21 at Liberty School. 

"I'll be honest with you, this is our biggest challenge. The people who are working in food service and driving buses and buildings and grounds - those folks are integral to us being able to operate as a school district," Ellis said.

Ellis made the remarks during a presentation on the human resources department and hiring processes in the school district at Tuesday's meeting.

Certified Staff Retention

"Our job isn't to fill positions, it's to create successful employees," Ellis said.

Ellis talked about how the human resources department accomplishes that. There are six elements of the employment process, he said. Recruitment. Job descriptions. Job posting. Interviewing. Selection. And ongoing support. He briefly discussed each element.

In the area of recruitment, Ellis said that everyone in the district can help with something important: Word of mouth.

"Recruitment is a collective responsibility. All of us have a role to play. The things that we say about our district have a tremendous impact on the desirability of our district, and I think it's important that everybody knows that," Ellis said. "I can't emphasize that enough employees walking around saying that this is a great place to work is far far more effective than anything that we could ever post on social media or anything that we could put in a job posting."

The HR department spends considerable time updating and honing job descriptions. It's not just about accuracy, it's about using the kinds of language that might attract a more diverse workforce.

"If you were to have looked at our job postings two, three years ago and compare them to the language that we have today, we have a lot more language today talking about our desire to have a more diverse workforce, to have a workforce that has a diverse background and diverse experiences," Ellis said.

For certified staff, the district posts to college job boards and known education job websites like Handshake and SchoolSpring. For support staff jobs, the district has opted for general sites like Indeed or social media. The district also advertises within its operations. The district provides food service to some families over the summer. Within the food offering Tuesday, there was a piece of paper advertising job listings in the district.

In the interview process, the district focuses on identifying essential skills required for a position. But they're also trying to learn more about the candidate than they'd find on a resume.

"We try to ask questions to say, 'how do you handle this? How have you done this? Please give us an example of that.' We want to know how they've taken their philosophy and how they've executed that in their work experience," Ellis said. 

The HR department makes recommendations to Superintendent Steve Laatsch, who makes the final decision.

But hiring is just part of the process. The district, Ellis said, wants to retain employees and help them be successful. There is an orientation for new employees and mentors for all classes of employees.

The district's certified staff retention rate is 74.33 percent is 74.3 percent, Ellis said. Despite the pandemic, it's actually been rising. Heading into the last school year, 21 of the 25 new certified staff returned to teach.

Heading into this year, all 12 staff members who started last year are expected to return.

Board Secretary Susan Estep asked Ellis what things the HR department is working on to help the district meet hiring, development and retention goals set in the district's DEI plan.

Ellis talked about changes made to the language in job postings and on the website that was recommended by Kandace Jones, before she was on the board.

"I can tell you from specific experience that candidates have expressed that that language was the reason they did apply and so that's been important," Ellis said. "I think if you look at some of the hires that we've had in the last year or so, particularly administrative level, you can see that the fruits of some of that labor have begun to really take root."

Ellis said Saline, due to its reputation as a great place to teach, is poised to take advantage of the teacher shortage in Michigan.

"There's an educator shortage that's here. It just hasn't affected us yet. It will help us with the DEI work but it will also help us in all facets of the district," Ellis said.

Ellis said it's important for current teachers to walk the halls of Saline Schools and encourage youngsters to join the profession.

Trustee Jenny Miller asked what organizations the HR department is contacting to reach people of color and LBGTQIA candidates. Again, Ellis said that Jones' advice helped in that regard. Still, 2020 was challenging due to the lack of in-person job fairs.

Recruitment can be challenging with the limited money in teaching. Additionally, the HR department doesn't have a recruitment budget.

It's also tough for the district to hire highly educated, experienced teachers because of the way school districts operate.

One of the ways districts balance their budgets is to replace retiring teachers, who are highly paid, with lower-paid, young teachers. But Ellis is trying to swim against that current.

"What I tell people now is that we make market-driven decisions and so there are some positions where it's very difficult for us to find quality candidates and we do have to pay the highest," Ellis said. "When we hire a K-6 elementary teacher, we have 300 applicants and we know we will find a quality candidate."

Trustee Miller, who worked in the district as a teacher, said the district's tuition reimbursement stipend for professional development is something that educators appreciate.

Superintendent Laatsch said the district's human resources efforts have improved since Ellis joined the district. Laatsch and former Superintendent Scot Graden usued to manage human resources. 

"Scot and I kind of muddled through it for the first couple of years and did the best we could with it. Since bringing Curt in, we have processes and procedures and we've developed structures around it. It continues to improve each year," Laatsch said.

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