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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – After several years of rapid growth and a recent return to in-person learning, Huntsville and Madison area schools are facing a series of changes. Huntsville City, Madison City, and Madison County School superintendents participated in the 10th annual State of the Schools meeting on Wednesday.

School administrators discussed local growth, the teacher shortage, and the best way to designate funds to create new programs for students. Together the three districts serve more than 56,000 students, and superintendents said hundreds of staff members work to keep those students in the classroom.

“We need bus drivers and cafeteria workers,” said Madison City Schools Superintendent Dr. Ed Nichols. “We need teachers’ aids, bookkeepers, and custodians, so it’s not just teaching staff. It’s support staff as well.”

Nichols says the district is looking to hire about 100 new employees, including 70 teachers in the upcoming months.

“You know, we have to look at how we can be competitive with other industries that are hiring,” Nichols said.

The state legislature recently approved a pay raise for Alabama teachers. Educators will soon see a 4% pay increase across the board, in addition to a compensation scale based on experience.

Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Christie Finley said she expects the incentive to help combat local teacher shortages.

“We have about 133 openings, but we do see a lot of teachers reconsidering that might be retiring to stay because we have changed that salary step that ended at step 27 to 35,” Finley said. “We hope we can retain a lot of our teachers thanks to our state legislators.”

Nichols said recent growth is apparent in the district’s recent projects, including a new middle school currently under construction. Madison City Schools has also purchased land for an eighth elementary school and is considering adding on to both high schools.

“Right now, our current population of students is about 12,300, and we predict in the next seven to ten years, we’ll be around 15,000 students,” Nichols said. “We’re constantly looking for bricks and mortar.”

According to Nichols, part of the challenge of managing a growing district is balancing the cost of new construction with the creation of new programs and opportunities for students.

The Alabama Legislature approved an $8.1 billion dollar education budget, with major increases earmarked for classroom supplies and math, science, and reading programs.

“There are a lot more things we’d like to do that we aren’t funded for,” Nichols said. “Even though eight billion is there and it’s the most we’ve ever had, inside of that there are a lot of programs that that money doesn’t necessarily reach at the school level.”

Finley said her school district recognizes the need for skilled workers and job training.

“In education, our main business is teaching and learning, and part of that is to make sure every student is college and career ready, but really to make sure they’re career ready,” Finley said. “Our focus is really building that workforce of tomorrow.”

Huntsville City Schools are partnering with local businesses to create technical programs for students.

“We have a lot of our programs that have waitlists,” Finley said. “In fact for the first time, we have first-time career-technical students or students going into tenth grade wanting to participate in our career-technical programs. It’s a major waitlist. We have almost 600 students, so this is a good problem because we see that all of our students want to participate in these opportunities that will provide them with a job as soon as they leave our doors as graduates.”

Finley said the district is in the process of reaching out to business partners and the city of Huntsville to find ways to expand programs to accommodate more students in the future.