Substitute teachers for five local school districts will be managed and employed by the Southern Oregon Education Service District next year, a move the ESD hopes will save districts time and money.

Substitute teachers for five local school districts will be managed and employed by the Southern Oregon Education Service District next year, a move the ESD hopes will save districts time and money.

The ESD got to work last week running orientations for more than 250 substitutes, who will become employees of SOESD and serve as subs in Ashland, Central Point, Eagle Point, Prospect and Rogue River — and for the ESD itself.

"We're hoping to take some demand off school districts' human resources and payroll departments," said Howard George, business manager for SOESD.

The ESD hopes to hire close to 400 subs to staff the six districts. It will use an online program called SubFinder to assign and reserve substitutes, and record their hours.

"Teachers can still have pre-arranged subs, but it must get into the system," George said.

In the past, substitute teachers wanting to sub in multiple districts had to undergo separate training and paperwork, and receive separate paychecks for their work.

Now, the districts utilizing the ESD will share the cost of one staff person, subs will undergo one set of training and paperwork, and receive one monthly paycheck that covers work done in all of the districts.

Within SubFinder, substitutes can designate certain hours and times they are available, and subs are allowed to have preferences for which districts and buildings they end up in.

Earlier this year, when employees of the Eagle Point School District went on strike, the district searched far and wide to find substitutes willing to cross the picket line, as many of the regular subs declined the work.

During the strike, rumors circulated that substitutes refusing to cross the picket line were being threatened, and that the district would refuse to hire them in the future.

Regardless of the ESD's new management role, subs will have no obligation to work at a district they don't want to, and districts can select preferences for substitutes.

"Substitutes always have the ability to turn down jobs," said George. "Subs may have preferences, but districts are no different."

George said the preferences aren't necessarily negative, as having consistent subs for teachers or schools is good for students.

Taking on the chore of managing substitutes is one of several services SOESD will offer to districts next year, all aimed at streamlining operations and sharing resources for the 13 mostly small and rural districts it serves.

Oregon is home to 17 ESDs, each receiving a portion of state funding to offer some services to all their districts and other optional services.

"Each year we work with the superintendents of the districts we serve to adjust our services to best fit their needs," said Scott Perry, superintendent for SOESD, which serves 50,000 students in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.

Perry said that when legislative debates surfaced in 2010 about the future of ESDs and whether school districts should be able to opt out completely, superintendents from SOESD's districts united to keep the local ESD the same.

"The superintendents of Southern Oregon highly value the services provided by the Southern Oregon Education Service District," said a joint letter written to Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in 2010 by all 13 SOESD superintendents. "We collectively shape those services."

The letter said all superintendents were in support of the ESD, and they already enjoyed the flexibility to opt out of some services.

For the upcoming year, the Medford and Phoenix-Talent districts, as well as tiny Butte Falls and Pinehurst, have opted not to participate.

While Phoenix-Talent uses the SubFinder program, it will employ its own subs, and Medford will use a similar database system not affiliated with SOESD.

George said that having an ESD manage substitutes is something the organization considered for several years. In the spring, they realized that enough districts were interested to make the switch worthwhile.

"Our goal is to keep the system as structured as possible," said George. "We've been talking about this for a number of years."

Earlier this month, the ESD ran four days of orientation sessions, processing paperwork for 250 to 300 people.

"We're still looking for a few more," said George, who hopes word will spread and attract another 100 or so interested subs.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.