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Company hired to find subs for Philly schools isn't finding many

The private firm that scored a $34 million contract with the Philadelphia School District to staff substitute-teaching jobs - and promised that 75 percent of those positions would be filled on Day One - has fallen far short of its goals so far.

The private firm that scored a $34 million contract with the Philadelphia School District to staff substitute-teaching jobs - and promised that 75 percent of those positions would be filled on Day One - has fallen far short of its goals so far.

On Tuesday, the first day of school, it had filled only 11 percent of the jobs.

That left 477 city classrooms without teachers.

On Wednesday and Thursday the rate and number of vacancies were roughly the same.

"I think it's easy to say that we had hoped for a better result," said Owen Murphy, spokesman for the firm, Source4Teachers of Cherry Hill. "We fully anticipate that the learning curve will soon go away, and we'll soon be generating better results."

To date, Source4Teachers has 300 workers credentialed and ready to accept jobs, well under the number of substitutes needed in Philadelphia classrooms in any given day.

An additional 500 teachers are in some stage of the application and credentialing process, Murphy said, and so far this week, dozens qualify and apply daily. By the end of the month, he said, 400 more workers could be qualified to teach, he said. The firm has said it would like a pool of 5,000 substitutes to be able to fill 90 percent of daily vacancies.

For peak teacher-absence season in Philadelphia - which generally begins in late November, Murphy said, and runs through the end of the school year - officials expect 1,000 daily vacancies.

District officials said they understand that the system is new and there will be hiccups, but that they are worried.

"Any time we don't have a teacher in front of a classroom, it's of great concern to us," said Fernando Gallard, district spokesman. "This is something that is really unfortunate, and we want to see a rapid improvement."

The district outsourced substitute-teaching services in the spring, saying that it was unable to effectively manage them in-house. On the district's watch, about 60 percent of substitute jobs were filled daily, a rate officials found unacceptable.

The move to outsource union jobs - substitutes had been members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers under the old system - drew heat from some quarters, including City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who has made no secret of his recent displeasure with the school system.

Gallard said the district is "working very closely" with Source4Teachers and that "we are expecting that they ramp up very quickly this month."

If the Cherry Hill-based company does not fill 90 percent of substitute vacancies by January, it will be subject to financial penalties, according to its contract.

Some schools have had no luck filling open substitute jobs under the new system, and district staff say the absences have been particularly difficult to manage. If no substitute shows up, existing teachers cover open classes - but the district must pay them after they fill in four times.

One teacher at a city magnet said that the school has been able to fill zero open jobs this week.

"And it's a great school," said the teacher, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. "We usually always have subs. I can't imagine what the less desirable schools to sub in are going to deal with this year."

Murphy said about 600 of 1,100 substitutes who worked for the district last year had raised their hands to work for Source4Teachers, though some merely started the application process and then trailed off.

"We've hired a good number of district originals, and many of them are just not accepting jobs," Murphy said. "Frankly, we're a little unsure why."

Usually when Source4Teachers takes over substitute staffing from a district, he said, it converts more existing subs.

He said it was possible that some eligible substitutes did not want to work in warm weather. Another factor, he said, is the amount of time available to fill vacancies.

"It's far easier to advance the fill rate when absences are logged in a timely fashion," said Murphy. Data for when vacancies cropped up were not immediately available, he said.

Still, 99 of the Philadelphia vacancies were created not by employees calling out but by unfilled permanent teaching jobs, according to district figures. Other absences were created by maternity leaves or other long-term illnesses, which were not surprises.

Some of the issue is managing a new system, Murphy suggested.

"As time goes on, the teachers and administrators and the folks engaging with this program will be better equipped to manage absences," he said.

Source4Teachers handles substitute staffing in dozens of districts locally and nearly 200 throughout the U.S., though Philadelphia's is its largest client.

Over the summer, it launched a splashy campaign to attract 5,000 teachers to staff Philadelphia classrooms, placing billboards on I-95 and other prominent spots.

Murphy said that will continue.

"We've got to apply more effort and resources to bringing in folks who have not already worked in the district," he said. "That's a challenge we accept, and it's something that we're greatly contributing to from a time and effort and financial standpoint."

Some teachers have complained about Source4Teachers' pay rates. It is offering between $75 and $90 for uncertified substitutes, and $90 to $110 for certified ones. The district paid $126.76 for uncertified subs and $160.10 for credentialed subs, once they passed through an initial trial period.

The difference between the private firm's pay scale and the district's is particularly stark for retired teachers. Under the old system, the district paid up to $242.83 daily. Retired teachers receive no extra wages from Source4Teachers.

Source4Teachers officials have suggested that the school system's pay scale was too high, and that it is offering market rate for the work.

Murphy said he did not believe pay was a significant factor in the company's success to date. He emphasized that Source4Teachers is optimistic it will be able to turn things around quickly.

"I do feel good about the direction we're going in," he said. "We've got new applicants and we're adding to the talent pool every day."