In the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Southwest Alaska, classes started this month with about a dozen teaching jobs unfilled.
Farther north, the Bering Strait School District still needed eight teachers in classrooms a week into the school year. It patched the vacancies with long-term substitutes or by combining classes, said Superintendent Bobby Bolen.
"It has been a little more difficult this year," he said of hiring. "One, there's fewer graduates in the field of education across the country, and two, there's less money in the state now, so there's not that financial draw that used to bring teachers up here."
Across the country, school districts have reported shortages of classroom teachers in areas such as math, science and special education for the 2017-18 school year, according to federal data.
A half-dozen superintendents of rural Alaska school districts interviewed this past week said they were in no way immune from the shrinking supply of teachers. Hiring teachers has become more challenging each year, they said, and 2017 was no different.
"Every year we have to work harder, and it's just getting more and more difficult," said Ty Mase, superintendent of the Lake and Peninsula Borough School District, headquartered in King Salmon. "But just working harder doesn't seem like it's going to keep us afloat."
Superintendents said there are fewer college students entering teacher training programs nationwide, creating greater competition among schools looking to hire. In Alaska, in the grip of a recession, rural school districts no longer offer teacher salaries that far exceed those of out-of-state districts, the superintendents said, plus the teacher retirement system here has shifted to one that doesn't encourage people to stay long term.
"We used to give people a retirement and a high salary," said Mase, who currently offers teachers starting pay of about $46,000 annually. "Now we find we give experience and we build resumes and people don't come for the salary or the retirement. They come up for two or three years, build their resume and then they go wherever."
As Jack Walsh, superintendent of Craig City School District in Southeast Alaska, put it: "Now people can make the same money that they make in Alaska in the suburbs of Chicago."
It's unclear just how many more teaching jobs were vacant across Alaska this year compared to years past. That statewide data doesn't exist. The Education Department said it's planning to start collecting data on how many substitutes without a valid Alaska teacher certificate fill vacant teacher jobs at the start of the school year.
Alaska Teacher Placement, the statewide education job clearinghouse, advertised roughly 100 open teaching jobs and 65 special-education jobs in Alaska's public schools by Wednesday — when school had already started in a majority of the state's districts.
Toni McFadden, manager of the clearinghouse, said the statewide job-posting system did not track changes in the number of teaching positions left vacant over the years. However, she said, it seems like the number only grows.
"Every year it's harder to fill the jobs and there are more jobs open when school starts," she said. "There's more pressure to hire because, nationwide, there are fewer teachers."
Between 2009 and 2014, the number of students training to become educators nationwide dropped from 691,000 to 451,000 — a 35 percent reduction, according to a report published last year by the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank with offices in Palo Alto, California, and Washington, D.C.
"The competition for teachers is just really off the charts right now," said Dan Walker, superintendent of the Lower Kuskokwim School District based in Bethel. "We're out beating the bushes trying to find people to apply for jobs."
Alaska public schools hire about 800 teachers every year, the University of Alaska has reported, and the university system graduated only 274 teachers in 2016, the most recent data available.
About 70 percent of teacher hires come from out of state, according to the University of Alaska.
Officials with the state's two largest school districts, in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, said their hiring pools have not taken the same hit that rural school districts have.
"Mat-Su enjoys the fact that we're in a really sought-after area," said Jillian Morrissey, the Mat-Su School District's public information officer, who formerly worked as its recruiting and hiring coordinator. "We don't have a hard time finding general ed teachers at all. We have an applicant pool larger than what we could hire for."
In Anchorage, the number of people who applied for teaching jobs in the district has remained relatively consistent over the past three fiscal years.
From July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015, 1,841 people applied for teaching jobs in the Anchorage School District compared to 1,703 the next year. In 2016-17, the number of applicants increased to 2,087, according to Susan Schmidt, the district's senior director of staffing and operations.
"We can always use more because we hire about 250 classroom teachers a year, so the bigger the pot the better," Schmidt said. "But our numbers have been pretty consistent."
Anchorage and Mat-Su still struggle to recruit for certain positions, including special-education jobs, occupational therapists and physical therapists, according to Schmidt and Morrissey.
By Tuesday, 17 long-term substitutes filled still-vacant special-education jobs in Anchorage, including Colleen Panzer at Orion Elementary School on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Panzer recently earned her master's degree in special education and is still working to get her Alaska teacher certificate.
Orion Principal Brenda Cheathon said she was "very fortunate" to have hired Panzer indefinitely for the vacant job. She said that as of last week — the first week of school in the city — only two people had applied for the open position and neither lived in Anchorage.
"The pool is very low," she said.
The shortage of special-education teachers vexes rural Alaska as well.
Therese Ashton, superintendent of the Tanana City School District in Interior Alaska, said she lost her special-education teacher this year to a nearby district and has yet to find a permanent replacement.
"She's very, very good and they could just pay much more money," Ashton said. "Our salary schedule is probably about $9,000 less than the other places around us."
Ashton said the district's hiring process faced delays this year due to the late budget from the Alaska Legislature. The resulting flat funding for schools meant she cut one of five teaching jobs, she said.
She hired new teachers for the other four positions, all of whom came from out of state.
Alaska's rural and remote schools have long grappled with a constant churn of teachers. The turnover rate in rural Alaska districts averaged 20 percent between 2004 and 2014, with about a dozen districts' annual turnover rates exceeding 30 percent, according to a study by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Center for Alaska Education Policy Research. The study, published in March, said each time a district lost a teacher and hired a replacement, it cost about $20,500. That cost included money and time spent on job fairs, advertising and training for new hires.
Walker, in Bethel, said the Lower Kuskokwim School District spends roughly $350,000 recruiting teachers every year. It even has a program that pays for its associate teachers to go to college and get a teaching degree. The Bering Strait School District based in Unalakleet has a similar program for its paraprofessionals. Still, representatives with both districts said it's hard to get all of the vacancies filled by the start of the school year.
"Within the past five years it's been really, really much more difficult to get folks to start the school year fully staffed," Walker said. "I don't even remember the last time we started the school year fully staffed."
Walker and other superintendents interviewed said they've noticed dwindling attendance at teacher job fairs and fewer applications for open jobs.
Annmarie O'Brien, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District headquartered in Kotzebue, said she went to a teacher job fair in Anchorage this year and "there were probably more schools recruiting than people who showed up."
Mase said his district used to interview about 30 applicants during a university visit and "we're down to about a third of that now."
In an effort to combat a shrinking applicant pool, Mase has started recruiting college students early, offering tutoring jobs to winter graduates who he said normally would have to wait until the fall for full-time employment with a school. He said he pays for their flight, their housing and a wage of $20 an hour to work as a tutor, hoping they'll fall in love with the place, take a teaching job the next school year and stick around for awhile.
"It's kind of a three-month-long interview process and they get a taste of Bush Alaska," Mase said.
O'Brien still needed to fill about 10 teacher jobs by Tuesday, about two weeks into the school year. She believed fewer students entered teacher training programs in part because teachers are too often and unfairly turned into scapegoats.
"I think teaching is a very difficult profession, and it's not in any way easier with schools being blamed for everything wrong happening in society," she said.
Tim Parker, president of the National Education Association-Alaska teachers union, said he did not believe hiring would improve for the state's schools until the budget uncertainty ended. This year, the Alaska Legislature went far into overtime to negotiate a budget and hundreds of teachers got laid off to meet deadlines in state law, only to get hired back again weeks later once lawmakers came to an agreement. Parker described it as a "self-inflicted wound," and one the state can't afford when it's competing for teachers on a nationwide playing field.
"We're saying, 'Hey come up to Alaska. By the way, we have huge fiscal uncertainty. We don't have a retirement system that's worth anything and every year we issue pink slips to everyone,' " he said. "It's not a situation that bodes well for the long run."