As a new substitute school teacher in Post Falls this year, Aspen Elbin figured it would be at least October before she would be called to a classroom.
But she went to work much sooner.
Just a few weeks into the school year, Elbin has already put in a few days at Frederick Post Kindercenter and has some days lined up at Mullan Trail Elementary.
"I'm happy to have the opportunities so early," said Elbin, a substitute in the Kamiah and Kooskia districts before her family moved here.
School districts still rely heavily on subs, but their budgets for teacher sub costs have declined in recent years like most other budgeted items.
Coeur d'Alene's sub budget has fallen from $874,357 in 2009-10 to $641,545 this year. Post Falls' budget has dropped during the same time from $183,210 to $170,000, while Lakeland's has shrunk from $139,050 to $127,750.
Tom Taggart, Lakeland's finance director, attributed that district's budget decrease to a lower number of regular teachers in recent years resulting from attendance declines.
"As we have less teachers, we have less use of subs," Taggart said.
Jerry Keane, Post Falls' superintendent, said professional development funds have been sliced for regular teachers, so there's fewer days needed off for such a purpose.
Post Falls had 3,883 sub days used three years ago for reasons ranging from maternity leave to illness to professional development. That compares with 3,731 two years ago and 3,650 last year.
Most districts also offer incentives to teachers to encourage them to stay in the classroom as much as possible.
At Lakeland, for example, teachers are given two personal leave days per year. They can carry one over to the next year and/or cash up to two unused days out at the end of the year.
In addition, the state takes any unused sick leave when someone retires and takes 50 percent of the unused days times the teacher's daily rate and uses it to pay health insurance premiums for the employee.
District officials say generally there are some funds left over from their sub budgets that can be carried over.
"It is fairly easy to predict regular use," Taggart said. "What is unpredictable is the situation where someone has an unexpected lengthy illness."
Meanwhile, local districts have maintained the same substitute pay rates during the past several years during the budget crunch.
Coeur d'Alene's daily rate is $65 per day and $70 if the stint is more than 10 days and if the sub is Idaho-certified. Post Falls' daily rate is $70 and long-term rate $75, while Lakeland's is $72 and $80.
"We want to remain competitive with other districts in Kootenai County," Keane said.
District officials say they've gotten occasional requests from subs for raises, but they continually have to weigh other budget needs and priorities.
"It's a supply and demand thing," Keane said. "If it looks like we can't get quality subs for what we're paying that's one thing, but we've got a pretty consistent pool of high quality guest teachers. They are a valuable part of our overall operation."
Substitutes do not receive benefits and are considered contractors, not district employees, nor are they included in the annual negotiated agreements between the districts and teacher unions.
Being certified is not a requirement to be a substitute teacher in Idaho, although it increases their chances of work if they are. Substitutes apply with the districts they want to be available to work for, have background checks and undergo a training by a district coordinator to be considered to be a part of the teacher pool.
Post Falls has about 50 subs in its pool and Coeur d'Alene about 90. Subs can have their name in at multiple districts.
"We're always recruiting new quality subs," said Laura Rumpler, Coeur d'Alene School District spokeswoman.
District officials say they've been able to fill days regular teachers are gone fairly easily with their sub pools. However, springtime can be tricky.
"That has to do with student teacher schedules and summer employment opportunities," Keane said of the occasional springtime dilemma.
Some substitutes have learned there's a big difference between finding part-time work and landing a full-time job.
Patsy Hargrave, a substitute in Coeur d'Alene, said it has taken awhile to find steady work. But, through networking and earning teachers' trust, she's been able to reach that point. She's currently subbing at Sorensen Magnet School through mid-October for a teacher on maternity leave.
"I tried to get on as a full-time teacher for 10 years, but stopped just so I could enjoy subbing," said Hargrave, adding that she has stayed credentialed. "I enjoy helping kids learn and filling the need."
The Nampa School District recently approved a policy allowing community volunteers as substitute teachers to help offset a $2.8 million budget shortfall.
While there is still some money available in that district to pay subs, it's not enough to meet all of their needs this year. That is where the volunteers come in.
Local districts said using volunteers as subs to cut costs isn't in the cards.
"We would never use volunteers as substitutes without being hired as a guest teacher and being paid," Keane said. "There are significant liability issues regarding having a volunteer take over a classroom. A volunteer would not be covered by our insurance. The risks far outweigh the benefits."
Taggart added: "To maintain quality and dependability, we feel we should pay people teaching our students."
Districts do utilize volunteers as classroom aides and for other duties.
"We try to use volunteers as creatively as we can, including for vision screenings at our elementary schools, but we haven't looked at using them as substitutes," Rumpler said. "There would definitely need to be a thorough analysis."
Keane said that, while there's no guarantee on the amount of work subs get and the pay falls well short of a regular teacher, the experience has been enough to keep the pools strong.
"Most of them are trying to get their foot in the door, and I tell people in education programs at universities that there's no better way to show what you can do than do a nice job as a sub," Keane said.