ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — For years, Kris Pichelman juggled motherhood, substitute teaching and private music lessons.
When her husband lost his job two years ago, the Burnsville mom of three set out to find a full-time job as a music teacher. But she quickly realized, she said, that those jobs seem to be vanishing fast: "Trying to get back into teaching full-time has proven elusive."
This summer, metro districts and statewide educator job bulletins are advertising part-time positions in numbers that are way out of proportion to the actual workforce in public schools.
Some experts say tight finances and dips in enrollment have led districts to chip away at their full-time teaching jobs. Sometimes, schools find themselves piecing together fragments of part-time jobs — which tend to offer no benefits — across school and even district lines.
And although hewing closely to district needs in hiring makes financial sense, many fear what a growing reliance on part-time jobs could spell for the teaching profession in the long run.
This spring and summer have seen a rise in public education job postings after a slump in the past few years. The EdPost bulletin out of St. Cloud State University — one of two main education career sites - listed about 1,680 openings in May, compared with 1,230 in May 2010 and fewer than 1,000 in May 2009.
Experts attribute the increase to the aging Minnesota educator workforce and a recent spate of retirements, some spurred by retirement incentives many districts offered this spring.
Though she doesn't keep statistics, Karen Hommerding, who administers the EdPost site, said more of the positions seem to be part-time these days than ever before.
More than 40 percent of the elementary, middle and high school teacher jobs posted recently on the Minnesota Association of School Administrators Jobsite were part-time. Traditionally, according to state data, about 10 percent of public educators work part-time.
Of the Richfield district's 10 postings on the MASA Jobsite, nine are part-time openings. Those include a 0.4 math position - which means 40 percent of a full-time teacher's hours — as well as a 0.6 social studies teacher and a 0.6 high school music teacher.
North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale is advertising almost twice as many part-time as full-time teaching positions on its website.
Timing plays a part. Districts might intentionally underestimate teacher work hours during the summer, rounding positions up if fall enrollments warrant it. And as North St. Paul's director of human resources, Keith Gray, points out, less-desirable part-time postings just tend to linger longer.
But financial realities might come into play as well. These days, Gray and his colleagues in other districts find themselves asking, "What is the least we can live with?"
As district finances have grown leaner, administrators have become more meticulous about hiring teachers for exactly as much time as they need, said Bob Lowe of the Minnesota School Board Association.
Say a metro high school splits students taking physics into three classes. If a dip in enrollment or interest leaves one section with only 15 students, that high school is more likely than ever to cut the class and let the remaining two absorb those students. That makes for larger classrooms — and fewer hours for the physics teacher.
In the past, districts would add supervisory or extracurricular duties to a part-time position to round it out to full-time. But as schools have scaled back programs in this tough economy, that has become less likely
"Everybody's asking, 'Instead of having a full-time teacher, can we get by with seven-tenths of one?'" said Charlie Kyte, MASA executive director.
When Lakeville cut dozens of teaching positions this spring, left in their wake were a number of part-time jobs without benefits, said Don Sinner, the teacher's union head.
Tenured teachers who were laid off had dibs, but many set out to look for full-time work elsewhere. One high school art teacher was left with a 0.4 position; two veteran art instructors offered up a fifth of their hours each so the teacher could stay and qualify for benefits.
Over in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, layoffs have similarly changed the demographic of part-time teachers, who in the past were primarily newcomers looking for a start, said Tom Pederstuen, director of human resources.
"We have more veteran teachers forced into part-time jobs because of the cutbacks," he said. "In the market we're in, it's tough to find full-time jobs because there are fewer of them."
The district has also asked principals to watch out for opportunities to cobble full-time jobs out of part-time positions. More than ever, schools are sharing teachers between buildings.
Jim Smola, the Rosemount district's union head, is also seeing shorter hours than ever for part-time positions. That shrinkage, he said, might help explain why union membership has declined in recent years: Part-time teachers are more likely to scrimp on dues.
In an effort to keep more full-time jobs, a handful of rural Minnesota districts have started sharing teachers. Sebeka and Menahga, one-time bitter sports rivals in northwest Minnesota, have shared foreign language, early childhood, and family and consumer science teachers in recent years, along with five sports teams and a community education director.
As declining enrollment whittles down the hours of teachers in 500-student Sebeka, Superintendent Dave Fjeldheim said he'll look for more partnership possibilities.
"Let's be honest: If you're opening a part-time position, you're likely going to get less-than-top-quality candidates," he said.
That's a concern that school leaders across the state share.
Districts in the metro area have no problem filling most positions - with a few specialized exceptions, such as speech pathology - full-time or part-time. North St. Paul, for instance, has already received 500 elementary teacher applications this summer, for about 10 openings.
"Right now, there's a glut of teachers," Smola said. "People will take part-time jobs just to get their foot in the door."
Still, officials agree: Fewer full-time jobs are bad for schools. A dearth of full-time opportunities could discourage ambitious college students from going into teaching or drive young talent out of the profession - just as more baby boomers are retiring.
In Richfield, personnel director Craig Holje said tailoring part-time positions to the district's exact needs allows it to make the most of limited resources. The district laid off more than 20 teachers this spring.
"Because of that, we're seeing more and more turnover," Holje said. "We're losing some great talent."
Meanwhile, Pichelman, the Burnsville teacher with a degree in music education, has resigned herself to applying for part-time jobs. Some of the teacher openings she has considered lately: 0.133 band in Eden Prairie, 0.2 choir in Robbinsdale and 0.28 elementary music in Minnetonka.
Beyond the metro area, it's a similar story.
"Whom will they get to fill these jobs?" Pichelman wondered. "Who is going to relocate to Waseca for a 0.5 choir job?"
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.