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Schools search afar to fill jobs

With a shrinking pool of qualified workers, the district has beefed up marketing of Citrus and has had to go out of state to attract applicants.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


Outside the World Trade Center, a bone-chilling spring rain was falling on people who had seen snow just a few days earlier.

Inside, amid the glitzy displays of big cities was a table where passers-by could view video footage of Florida sunshine gleaming on pristine rivers teeming with fish and manatees. Nearby, fresh Florida orange juice was set out for sampling, while Citrus officials waited to share information about their beautiful county. That shrewd marketing presentation played out two weeks ago in New York as administrators and personnel representatives of the Citrus public schools went on a rare out-of-state teacher recruiting trip.

The mission, which netted three serious prospects and 20 other interested teachers, is the latest in a series of actions school officials have been forced to take to broaden recruiting efforts.

From bus drivers to school principals, the pools of available, qualified workers for school jobs have been shrinking. That means beefing up the marketing of Citrus County and casting a wider net for workers.

School officials have changed the traditional way of thinking about who fills school jobs.

In the past, mothers of young children chose to teach and drive school buses since those jobs allowed them time with their youngsters. Now the district encourages teacher aides and support workers to become teachers and seeks retirees to drive buses.

Personnel director Sam Stiteler said the ultimate goal is getting quality people and keeping them. "That helps us to be a better school system. That helps our students be better prepared."

Citrus County schools awakened to the employee shortage problem last year, when 30 teaching jobs went unfilled for the entire school year. Permanent substitutes filled in. This year, only 13 positions have remained open all year.

How to fill those open seats? The Internet, for starters. The district has its own Web page, and an employment Web site operated for all Florida school districts lists jobs.

"The mass advertising, that will help," Stiteler said. "We're doing that with teachers in Florida, and we're getting some response back."

The Internet isn't the only answer, though. When the district sought a finance director last year, it tried advertising on Monster.com. No applicants met the basic job requirements. "We live and we learn," Stiteler said.

Lecanto High School TV production students created a recruiting video used during the New York recruiting trip.

"It tells them what Citrus County is all about. It's hard to know that if you have never been here," Stiteler said. "It shows the rivers and the manatees. . . . You've got to sell them on the community too."

In the past, school officials spoke to applicants and invited them to visit. But they could not actually offer them a job at a recruiting event. These days, the district can offer serious applicants a conditional offer of employment.

That is what they did with the three New York applicants who wanted to visit. Once they pass the final hurdles, including the pre-employment drug test, they can join the faculty.

Additional out-of-state recruiting trips are planned, at least until Stiteler's budget runs out. Special emphasis is on finding teachers to take hard-to-fill positions such as math, science, technical fields and exceptional student education.

In New York, recruiters sought much-needed minority applicants.

Officials also are borrowing ideas that have worked elsewhere.

For example, in Marion County, community members offer small monetary incentives for teachers to locate there. Apartments might drop one of their normal move-in deposits or utilities might waive a deposit fee.

Then there is the push to encourage local youngsters to be teachers in the future. While the district currently has no Future Teachers of America Club, some school officials hope to inspire local interest in that organization.

Scholarship opportunities for students are also being explored, as are new programs through Saint Leo University to train adults in other fields to be teachers.

At Citrus High School, the staff will spend the upcoming school year preparing plans for a teaching academy that could start in fall 2002 and expand to other schools later, Stiteler said.

Beyond all that active looking for teachers, the school district plans to better document what recruiting tools work and why teachers leave the district.

Inverness Primary School Principal Terry Charles, who was along on last month's mission to New York, said the Citrus booth was next to the recruiters from the New York schools. Yet Citrus officials were encouraged because they had a constant stream of interested teaching applicants.

Late last week Charles was preparing for a visit with two of those New York applicants, who will be in town this week. She also had a list of other potential applicants to contact again, all of this after her regular day of running her school. "I don't have time to do this but I have to take the time. What we really need is a person in charge of recruitment." Still, there is no other choice. "We're in a crisis here," Charles said.

While the teacher shortage has gotten the most attention, other district jobs also are becoming more difficult to fill.

Since most administrators come up through the teaching ranks, it is not surprising that the district is on the verge of what some consider a serious shortage of school leaders.

This year, for example, five of the district's 20 schools are being led by principals who have entered an early retirement program called DROP, or Deferred Retirement Option Program. Under the rules, they must leave within five years of signing up. Several other principals are at or near the point where they could retire anyway.

There are also county-level administrators in the same brackets.

Next month will be the first time new superintendent David Hickey gets to appoint his own administrative team for the 2001-02 school year. That could also mean new faces filling old positions.

Just two weeks ago, Assistant Superintendent Linda Kelley warned the School Board that the shortage in administrators could be helped by dropping the five-year experience cap for administrators. Under the cap, longtime assistant principals might have to take a pay cut to become principals. "I can support that (removing the cap) wholeheartedly. . . . To take on that responsibility for all of it by becoming principal, there needs to be an incentive," Stiteler said. "Money isn't everything but you've got to be competitive in your salary."

During the past couple of years, out-of-area applicants for such jobs have dropped dramatically from 5 to 10 per open position to just one or two, Stiteler said.

Charles agreed that the administrator crunch is coming and that the answer is not going to come to the county from the outside. "You have to grow your own. You can't survive on taking in people. You've got to move them on up."

Currently president of the Citrus County Principals Association, Charles said Citrus is working hard to provide the kinds of nurturing and leadership training opportunities the current crop of teachers and assistant principals need to someday step into a principal's job. There is a formal leadership development program in place but other ideas also are being tried.

For example, the association is planning a leadership training conference this June where administrators will talk about important issues ranging from stress to crisis management.

"Our district is doing just fine in this. It's just a matter of rethinking things that have been done for time in memoriam. Leadership means we have to foster that," Charles said.

Creative thinking is needed to attract workers into other district jobs that pay less and provide only part-time opportunities.

The School Board last month approved a quarterly $100 bonus for bus drivers who have perfect attendance. Since the final quarter of the school year began late last month, 122 of 149 drivers have been at work every day. During the previous quarter, 36 drivers had perfect attendance.

Fewer days off means fewer open routes and less reliance on substitute drivers, which also are in short supply. According to figures provided by school transportation officials last week, the district had 19 substitute drivers. Of those, 11 were working every day on routes empty because they are now open or because drivers were out for extended periods of time.

"It's difficult and it's challenging" to fill driver jobs, said Bill Humbaugh, the district's executive director of support services. "It's fitting into a niche."

That niche means a worker can come in just a couple of hours in the morning and a couple in the afternoon. For some people, that arrangement works. While those hours and the work itself may seem unattractive or difficult, regular bus drivers get benefits like days off, health insurance and retirement. For those who want a full-time job, the district has doubled up runs and offered extra runs and field trips for those who want them.

Other ideas also are under consideration, such as finding a way to get new drivers from substitute to permanent status more quickly. The process now takes a year or more. Humbaugh said that needs to change because many drivers will take other jobs while they're waiting.

There are other smaller changes that the district makes to try to make drivers enjoy their work more, such as the recent decision to equip all future buses with air conditioning.

There are needs in other support areas as well. Food service jobs pay at the bottom of the scale and are only part time, so those positions are hard to fill as well, Stiteler said.

Still, for whatever jobs are open, the district uses what means it can. That means asking employees to ask friends and family, advertising for workers in school newspapers and bringing students from the district's work-study program into the school system. Several workers in Stiteler's office began as high school work-study students and have stayed on for full-time employment.

Stiteler said she worries about what the future might hold with state lawmakers changing the rules about employee benefits. Some of those changes might help workers to be even more mobile, further compounding the difficulty of finding people to fill positions.

School districts are going to have to take the initiative to make salaries attractive, find the right people to fit with the right jobs and remind the public again why they might want to become a teacher, an aide or a bus driver. "We're going to have to market teaching as a career again," she said.

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