CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — As Chesterfield students prepare to return to class in just a week’s time, more than 200 teacher vacancies remain across the school division. Data obtained by 8News sheds light on who’s most affected by the vacancies – and what the county is doing to bridge the gap.

According to data shared by school officials, there are currently 220 total teaching vacancies across the county’s 67 schools. That’s an average of about 3.2 empty seats per school, with some part-time positions counted as decimals of a single position.

But those vacancies aren’t evenly distributed. A number of schools in Chesterfield are fully staffed ahead of the new school year, while schools like Beulah Elementary and Falling Creek Middle School have vacancies in the double digits.

The Impact of Vacancies

One mother, whose son is a rising senior at one of Chesterfield’s specialty centers, asked not to be identified by name because she was worried about retaliation against her son, but said vacancies at her son’s school have thrown a wrench in his college plans.

“He has a new guidance counselor this year who he’s never met, doesn’t know anything about, she doesn’t know anything about him,” she said. “And this is the worst time to have a new guidance counselor ’cause they have to write recommendations. How is she gonna get up to speed and get to know him that quickly?”

“He still doesn’t know who his math teacher is going to be or who his science teacher is going to be,” she added.

Math vacancies are especially persistent in Chesterfield Schools, with the gap bridged in many places with Virtual Virginia seats.

“I know that, especially last year, we saw Virtual Virginia fill a gap for required classes, especially at the secondary level,” said Christine Melendez, President of the Chesterfield Education Association. “We saw a lot of vacancies in math that were addressed by Virtual Virginia curricula, especially in those hard-to-staff buildings.”

Dominique Chatters is a retired veteran and mother of four students in Chesterfield County, two in elementary school and two in middle school. Chatters is heavily involved in Chesterfield schools.

“I volunteer at all of the schools my children attend – I’ve been PTA president at all of the schools my children attend,” she said.

She said she’s been frustrated with the lack of public attention to teacher vacancies.

“We know that we’re always constantly short, that’s not a new story. But don’t not talk about it, as if it’s going to go away if you don’t talk about it.”

Who Feels the Impact?

Chatters said that through conversations with a school board member Debbie Bailey, she learned that vacancies are disproportionately concentrated in the Dale area, which straddles Route 288 to the North and East of Pocahontas State Park.

“Dale District is predominantly Black and brown children, and so to have the majority of the vacancies be in a community that’s been grossly disenfranchised – that should be embarrassing to the county,” Chatters said.

In fact, an analysis by 8News found that across the county, schools with more non-white students had higher numbers of vacancies compared to those with more white students. In Chesterfield, about 46% of students are white, while 26% are Black and 19% are Hispanic.

Check out the complete dataset and explore other factors like Virtual Virginia sections.

But those percentages vary widely by school, with some on the extreme ends of the distribution reflecting a de facto racial segregation at many schools.

Chesterfield isn’t alone in facing this issue – Richmond and other school divisions across the country have struggled with the same issues, which can lead to worse outcomes for students across the division.

“When you look at the data and you realize that there are large numbers of vacancies of very specific schools, you start to wonder why it is that those vacancies are much higher in those areas of the county,” Melendez said.

Bringing New Teachers In

In Chesterfield, the district has made efforts to close that vacancy gap by designating schools with a large number of persistent vacancies as “hard to staff,” directing extra resourced to retaining and recruiting teachers there.

The county has begun offering $3,000 signing bonuses to teachers working in 11 schools across the county, as well as job fairs designed to recruit specifically for positions at those same schools.

“Next school year, we will hold four teacher job fairs beginning in January,” said Shawn Smith, Head of Communications for Chesterfield Public Schools. “These will be focused on hard-to-staff schools, critical vacancies, elementary vacancies and all teaching vacancies.”

But Chatters said there were some factors contributing to the problem that may be outside of the school division’s control.

“Governor Youngkin’s executive orders put a lot of pressure on teachers to tap-dance in the classroom,” she said. “For example, if you’re not allowed to talk about ‘divisive concepts’ – which is very vaguely and loosely defined – you put the teacher in a precarious situation.”

Melendez, meanwhile, emphasized a lack of support from the administration for teachers working in schools where students often face more serious educational challenges.

“If you speak to anybody who works at [Falling Creek Middle] or has worked there and chosen to leave, it is never the fault of the students. Those adults in that building, be it the bus drivers and any support staff, they love their students. They know their students are in a higher need category because of their circumstances,” Melendez said. “Those teachers understand the needs of those students, but are also encountering a lack of resources, a lack of support from the very same people who promise to provide those supports.”

Issues she highlighted included concerns over overcrowding, the administration’s use of trailers as a stopgap, and safety in the packed halls.

One frequent sticking point has been teacher pay. The county committed to a nearly $60 million pay study this year, which included an 8% pay boost for veteran teachers and an increase in base teacher pay designed to make Chesterfield more competitive with neighboring counties.

Chesterfield County spent far less per pupil on education than the state average as recently as 2020. (Chart courtesy of Chesterfield County Schools)

But in many ways, the school division is fighting to make up for lost time, as a 2020 study found the county was paying veteran teachers more than $20,000 a year less than neighboring Henrico – and Henrico moved to introduce their own pay increase for teachers this year.

“We appreciate the work that was done to get the teacher pay study approved. That’s awesome and that’s an excellent move in the right direction,” Chatters said. “My only issue with that is that it moves too slow. We still have other counties that border us that are doing better.”

Melendez said that one way to regain teacher confidence would be to recognize the teachers’ union and allow them to bargain for better contracts.

“I do think that those incentives were helpful, but I think the school division needs to stop tip-toeing around the fact that employees want, need and deserve a better-negotiated contract,” she said.

The school has experienced some success in reducing vacancies – from 270 on July 21 to 220 on Aug. 11 – in part due to a surge in recruiting efforts that included targeted online job postings, help for those looking to switch careers into teaching and recruiting aimed at college students.

Despite those efforts, some schools – like Falling Creek Middle – have barely seen their vacancies budge at all. Still, the mother of one rising senior isn’t giving up hope.

“My son wants to become a teacher and a school administrator despite all the stuff that’s going on,” she said. “And I really do hope by the time he graduates college and is ready to do that that they have some of these things fixed and can offer him a decent salary to come back and work in Chesterfield County.”