Just weeks before the end of the school year, more than 400 substitute teachers in the Tucson Unified School District were put on notice their jobs are being outsourced next term.

That notice includes the name of the employment agency TUSD will use, an invitation for existing TUSD substitute teachers to apply to that company — complete with a new hire packet — and the July 1 date on which the changes will take effect, even though the required approval of TUSD’s Governing Board has neither been requested nor given.

Though TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez says the “recommendation” will be presented to the board for study in June, the May 5 notice sent out by TUSD and the leasing company, Educational Services Inc., clearly states the employees cannot return in that same capacity next school year if they are not leased from ESI.

Whether the change will be approved by a Governing Board that has previously rejected even exploring outsourcing as a cost-saving measure remains to be seen.

TUSD already has an agreement with ESI, approved less than a year ago, to use the employee leasing agency on a limited basis for specific groups, none of which included substitute teachers.

Although Sanchez asserted in an interview on Friday the substitute teachers were always part of the outsourcing plan, records show that was not part of the public discussions last year.

When asked whether it is appropriate to direct substitute teachers to sign on with ESI before getting Governing Board approval, Sanchez said it was not a requirement until the board approves. He also noted that other Arizona school districts are going in, or considering, this direction.

In justifying the change, the notice sent to employees explains the Affordable Health Care Act sets requirements for employers regarding hours worked and health insurance eligibility. Contracting with ESI, the letter states, will allow for better monitoring to comply with that.

Sanchez told the Star, however, it’s not a matter of monitoring, it’s a matter of money.

Though TUSD would still be on the hook for the substitutes’ daily rate and a fee to lease the employees from ESI, Sanchez says that doing so is more cost-effective than providing medical benefits for those who would qualify.

An analysis is underway to determine the savings that can be achieved, but TUSD estimated that minimally it could be $75,000 per year, which does not include insurance costs.

Those savings would be used to cover TUSD salary increases and other expenses, as well as to possibly increase substitute teachers’ daily rate by $5 to $10. The current minimum rate for substitute teachers is $75 a day, but the rate goes up based on various factors.

Past board action

In June 2014, the board approved utilizing ESI for retired educators who wish to return to work.

It was billed as a win-win situation because the district would save money by not having to match the employees’ contributions to the Arizona State Retirement System and employees would not lose money contributing to a system they are already collecting a pension from.

In addition to utilizing the teacher lease program for retired educators, the board approved a voluntary opt-out plan for a select group of teachers and administrators who would prefer not to pay into the system.

In an effort to recruit for hard-to-fill positions, the group was limited to 100 employees coming in from out of the country, out of state, and to non-educators with bonafide retirement plans looking to take on teaching as a second career.

That secondary effort was not successful, Sanchez said on Friday, saying “it never took hold and no one was very interested in it.”

At the time, some board members had reservations about the opt-out plan, with Cam Juarez questioning how it was different from outsourcing. But the board unanimously approved it with prodding from Sanchez.

“The key word in this is option: Nobody is being made to do it, they’re not being told to do it; it’s an option,” Sanchez told the board at the time.

When asked again on Friday whether this is outsourcing, Sanchez said it’s a matter of semantics. “By some accounts, yes, but by some accounts, no,” he said.

Though Juarez is generally opposed to outsourcing, he said on Wednesday that the proposal applies to substitute teachers who are hired on an as-needed basis, not permanent positions.

“I love and appreciate our substitute teachers but would much rather incentivize hiring permanent teachers than those in place for a few days, weeks or months,” he said.

According to Juarez, Sanchez explained that the cost of providing health insurance could cause the district to cut into funds intended for its class-size initiative.

“That is something I would work to maintain because that helps the district, it helps with recruitment and it helps with student retention,” Juarez said of reducing student-to-teacher ratios.

Teacher questions

For Felix Gafner and his wife, both of whom have served as substitute teachers in TUSD, working for ESI eliminates their ability to pay into the state retirement system.

Gafner’s wife has been paying into the system for 10 years and planned to continue to do so for the next few years until she qualified to collect a pension.

The district’s last-minute decision, however, has thrown a wrench in that, forcing her to consider applying for a TUSD job with a standard contract or substitute-teaching elsewhere.

“When you go to the substitute introduction, you’re told you’re filling a very important job, but they sure don’t behave like you’re important,” Felix Gafner said. “It’s very wrong what they did here.”

Gafner was also told during an informational meeting on May 12 that the action was board-approved. But the Governing Board has not discussed ESI since the vote was taken in June 2014, something board member Mark Stegeman says is concerning.

“I have a serious issue with it not coming through the board,” said Stegeman, who indicated it’s unlikely he would have supported such an action, at least not without a full understanding of the district’s motivation or a review of the economics.

Board member Juarez, however, says he is not “suspicious or uncomfortable” with the way the process has been handled. He said Sanchez explained it was necessary to make contact ahead of board approval to reach employees before summer break — an explanation Sanchez did not provide to the Star.

A further concern for Stegeman is the fact that TUSD has struggled filling teaching positions and has relied on substitute teachers. “We are having a lot of trouble finding adequate substitutes,” he said. “It’s especially hard to find them for certain subject areas and certain schools. From a purely practical viewpoint, it doesn’t make sense to do things that will drive substitute teachers away. That’s probably self-destructive.”

Of the eight other major school districts in the Tucson area, many of which offer a higher daily rate for basic substitute-teaching assignments, all of them directly employ their guest teachers, although a few turn to contracted services when their own pool cannot fulfill the need.

Sanchez does not see the change as taking anything away from the district or the substitute teachers, saying that to retire off of those contributions, the average substitute teacher would have to pay in for an “exorbitant number of years.”

“It doesn’t create a significant amount of savings for them,” Sanchez said, adding that after a certain number of years, employees can withdraw what they have contributed.

If substitute teachers are banking on retiring with those funds, Sanchez said he would encourage them to find a faster path to becoming a certified teacher.

TUSD is not the first to consider this move. Casa Grande Elementary School District will begin leasing substitute teachers July 1.

While TUSD substitute teachers are not represented by a bargaining unit, the district’s teachers union has said its main concern is ensuring that existing employees have jobs.

Under the agreement with ESI, that is the case, with TUSD recommending those employees for hire without an interview.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.