Lucy Rodarte arrives at 6 a.m. and is instantly behind.
She has to find nine substitute teachers for the Prescott Unified School District before the morning bells ring, and substitute coordinators in two neighboring districts have a half-hour jump on her.She quickly runs her right forefinger over the color-coded file of potential subs while her left hand flies across the telephone key pad.
"Good morning. Are you available for work today?" she asks in a short, punctuated manner.
No, says the voice on the other end. "OK. Bye." Rodarte can't waste time waiting for an explanation.
The scene plays out each day around the West, especially in booming areas such as Prescott. With the economy good and other jobs paying more, it's getting harder and harder to find enough substitute teachers.
To meet the demand, districts are being forced to turn to a variety of alternatives ranging from using temporary employment agencies to certifying subs with as little as a high school diploma and an FBI background check.
Those who would make qualified substitutes - with college educations and good people skills - are usually employed full-time in more profitable jobs, said Jewell Gould, research director for the American Federation of Teachers.
People often use substitute teaching as a way to make ends meet between jobs. But in fast-growing Western states like Arizona, unemployment is low, jobs are plentiful and substitute teachers make just $55 to $70 a day.
In Colorado's Eagle County, home of the ski resort town of Vail, full-time teachers barely make enough to live on, never mind the substitutes.
"We need as many substitutes as we can get right now. . . . We've had times where people can't go home sick because we can't get a substitute," said Cindy Paxson, a school district spokeswoman.
The shortage is aggravated by an aging teaching force, Gould said. Traditionally, many subs were certified teachers who had taken time off to have children but wanted to return to work. Now, a growing percentage of teachers are older than 55.
Low pay and growing career opportunities for women, who still make up the majority of teachers, are keeping college graduates away, Gould said.
Fast-growing areas and states that have pushed to shrink the student-to-teacher ratio are especially susceptible to substitute shortages.
Jan Agee, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said there was little talk of substitute shortages in Davis, where she lives, until the state launched efforts to reduce class sizes in 1996.
The substitute pool is usually the first place that districts look when trying to fill teacher positions, Gould said.
The rapidly expanding Yuma, Ariz., area has two new schools going in, meaning the already stretched supply of subs has to go even further, said Tom Tyree, an associate superintendent for the Yuma Elementary School District in far western Arizona.
In Utah's Jordan School District, eight schools are going up in the next two years, said district spokes-woman Melinda Rock. Finding enough substitutes has always been a challenge; the growth is only expected to make it tougher.
To fill the gap, state and education officials are doing everything from emergency certifying substitutes to asking retirees to return.
Arizona has seen a dramatic increase in emergency certifications - something it allows with as little as a high school diploma. Between 1992 and 1997, emergency sub certifications more than tripled.
At the Salt Lake City School District, officials sometimes must use temporary employment services to fill in the gaps, said Dolores Riley, assistant superintendent for human resources.
Some districts even try to reduce interdistrict competition by paying substitutes more if they agree to work for them exclusively.
Others, like the Phoenix Union High School District, have turned to their retirees.
Several years ago, Phoenix Union offered an early retirement package to staff willing to work 10 days a year, said district spokesman Jim Cummings. The retired teachers now come back as substitutes.
They are already certified and have years of classroom experience, saving the district money and offering an extra pool of teachers.
Despite the creative solutions, Gould said the substitute deficit is unlikely to disappear soon.
"I don't know what we're going to do," he said. "I suppose some bright person will figure out that it is a matter of getting compensation aligned and finding people who are willing to make sacrifices."