AUSTIN (KXAN) — Students return to classrooms in the Austin Independent School District in less than a month, and the district still has more than 500 open positions.

AISD held a job fair for teachers Tuesday, in an effort to attract new talent to the district.

“I’m in the middle right now of my alternate certification program. And so I’ve been interviewing with a lot of schools,” Cody Pope, who attended the fair, said Tuesday.

He’s hoping to work for the district, after what he described as a pleasant experience working as a substitute teacher in Austin last year.

“I’m going for just to be a high school or even middle school social studies, social sciences teacher. I’m really interested in coaching as well,” Pope said.

“We do have over 500 positions available,” AISD assistant superintendent Norma Castillo said at the fair.

“We want to ensure that our students when they come back in the fall, they have a qualified teacher in the classroom,” she said.

In addition to hosting job fairs, the district is offering monetary incentives for those who sign on with the district.

“We have different opportunities, different incentives, that we have just newly announced… $500 sign-on incentive for teacher assistants, special ed teaching assistants receive a $1,000 incentive, and any employee hired before Sept. 1 is eligible for $2,000 retention incentive as well,” Castillo explained.

Compensation is just one focus of the Texas Education Agency’s Teacher Vacancy Task Force. It has four working groups, comprised of district leadership and teachers from across the state.

Those groups are compensation models, understanding the teacher experience, improving educator preparation and strategic staffing models.

Chane Rascoe, superintendent of Lampasas ISD who serves on the task force, said his district got an idea on staffing models from another district this spring: hiring extra teachers before vacancies occur.

“For one campus, in particular, we hired three teachers extra in April. And we ended up losing three teachers by the end of April. And we had to use all those [extras],” Rascoe said.

“We did that again for another round in May, hired three extra for that campus, and we used all of them in May,” he continued.

Now, the district is set to begin this school year with no vacancies and three extra teachers on hand.

“We just said OK, this is the best time to get the best teacher we can, we’re just going to take the chance and hire extra, knowing that we would probably have to use our funds to convert them to tutors and other things, but we have to do something,” he said.

Rascoe said he realizes this model won’t work for every district.

“A larger district, there’s going to have to be some creative things done. And that’s one of the things that we hope in the future that the work that the taskforce is doing would help with that,” he said.

The task force meets bi-monthly and publishes best practices discussed after each meeting and publishes them online for all districts to learn from. At the end of the 12-month period, in February, the task force will publish a full report with recommendations to lawmakers just in time for the next legislative session.

The TEA told KXAN in a statement, “With a strong contingent of educators and administrators that represent all corners of the state, the Task Force remains steadfastly committed to its mission and looks forward to its next meeting on August 24th. All resources, notes from discussions, and draft recommendations will continue to be regularly published on the TVTF website after each meeting. The Task Force expects to publish a final report with recommendations in February 2023.”

June task force takeaways

Each of the four working groups leaves notes for the rest of the state to follow.

During the last meeting in June, the educator preparation group said it is working to ensure there is a high bar for teacher quality.

The group members said there is a need for high-quality mentoring programs and quality teacher preparation across the state, and added there needs to be more partnerships between districts and educator preparation programs.

They also stated those prep programs should continue with teachers once they enter the classroom and support them in their early careers.

The second group, looking at staffing models, is tasked with reconsidering staffing and teacher pipelines. Members of this group said the state should consider a collective impact approach, specifically how to leverage Education Service Centers as a hub to assist districts.

The third group analyzes compensation models. During June’s meeting, members discussed how districts can compensate staff other than salary, including tapping into the Teacher Incentive Allotment, and the possibility of offering childcare to staff for free.

The final group, understanding the teacher experience, discussed how teachers right now feel overworked and underpaid.

Recommendations include re-engineering the school day, which could help re-envision where and when work is done. This could address workload, mental health and provide time for important areas.

The group also discussed how political debates around curriculum and library books are heavy on teachers’ minds and hearts. “The way the legislature talks about these things will impact teachers,” the notes said.