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Pasco schools look to fill tech specialist positions

LAND O'LAKES — Kirk Pitts enjoys being an elementary school instructional technology specialist.

But when the Pasco County School Board split the position last year as a cost-cutting measure, he said, the job became overwhelming. Trying to do the technology training, set-up, maintenance, purchasing, teaching and more for two schools was too tough.

"The responsibilities don't get cut in half," said Pitts, a district technology specialist since 1997. "Just the amount of time to do it all."

So when the opportunity arose over the summer for him to work at a single school — Lacoochee Elementary used its federal Title 1 funds to expand its specialist post to full-time — Pitts jumped at it. And the schools he left behind, Centennial and San Antonio elementary schools, have yet to find a replacement.

"We are not getting calls for the split position, so I'd have to say it is difficult," said Centennial principal Cindy Harper, who has readvertised the job with little success.

And she's not alone.

Sand Pine Elementary principal Todd Cluff is in the same boat, having lost the tech specialist his school shared with Quail Hollow Elementary. Deer Park and Chasco elementary schools are looking to fill their joint spot, with their specialist off to a full-time job at Sunlake High. A couple of other schools face this scenario later in the year, when their specialists retire.

The dearth of qualified candidates has prompted the district media services department to reopen its applicant pool to help with the recruiting.

"This is one of the unintended consequences of going to a split schedule," Cluff said. "Financially it might make sense, but most tech specialists don't want to be split."

And if that's the case for this job, School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said, there could be implications for other positions such as secondary literacy coaches, which the board also split for the new academic year.

"We need to take a closer look," Hurley said.

The district laid off 14 elementary technology and media specialists, plus 28 assistants, in 2011 as part of its plan to reduce recurring expenses by more than $50 million. Board members said they preferred to cut rather than eliminate services, but something had to go and their options were limited within the confines of state and federal mandates and fixed costs such as utilities.

Complaints about the inability to serve two schools well soon arose, but the specialists stuck it out. As full-time jobs at single schools came open, though, many gravitated toward those instead.

Generally, the schools with full-time technology specialists are middle and high schools, and elementary schools that either have more than 750 students or use Title 1 funding to pay for the additional half position.

Susan Thomas, a district technology specialist since 1999, jumped this summer from working at both Sand Pine and Quail Hollow to a post at Seven Oaks Elementary, which is nearing 1,000 students. Working at a single school will give her more time to do her job thoroughly and well in the face of never-ending changes in the world of technology.

"Last year posed so many challenges for us … that we started our own forum," Thomas said. "We all had issues, and it was really hard to come up with solutions."

In addition to dealing with frequent upgrades, the specialists had to keep up with two schools that often had different equipment, needs and cultures. Computerized testing began taking up more time, as did maintenance and repairs.

"The goal of our position in Pasco County is technology integration" with instruction, Thomas said. "The integration was really hard to get to."

She worried that the increasing demands on the position might make it hard to find teachers willing to step into the job at two separate schools.

While the principals continue to seek new specialists, Thomas, Pitts and others have offered to help out with such needs as uploading new software, preparing computer labs for testing and setting up wireless routers in portable classrooms. District staff also filled in.

Those are short-term fixes, though.

"It's impossible," Pitts said of his attempt to divide his time among three schools, an effort he'll end after Labor Day. "It's just a bare bones of what it takes to get the school started."

School Board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said the scenario playing itself out wasn't necessarily one the board could have foreseen. Other district positions, such as school nurses and social workers, have been split with fewer classroom implications, she noted.

Now that the effects are known, though, "it is something that can be addressed," Armstrong said. "This illustrates what the continual budget cuts are doing to our schools and the need to increase revenue coming to our schools. It is causing problems in providing quality education."

District spokeswoman Summer Robertson said the administration has its eye on the situation.

"We are aware of the difficulties, and are working to recruit good candidates for the positions," Robertson said. "We believe we will be able to find the best people for these positions."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Pasco schools look to fill tech specialist positions 08/30/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012 2:45pm]
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