Gulfside Elementary School principal Chris Clayton spent this past week in Michigan seeking top teachers.
"We're looking for the best possible teachers to bring back to Pasco County," Clayton said Thursday from a Central Michigan University job fair, as candidates streamed into the auditorium. "Yesterday it was Eastern Michigan. Tomorrow it's Michigan State."
Many of the hopefuls lined up at booths for nearby school systems, which don't have many openings, he noted. While they waited, Pasco officials joined them in line, talking about employment in sunny Florida.
Clayton sometimes offered a small sunblock packet emblazoned with the district logo.
"We're just planting a seed," he said.
In 2009, with funding tight and jobs few, the School Board erased its out-of-state recruiting budget and deleted its recruiter jobs. The need did not exist.
Five years later, the economy has rebounded and enrollment has surged. The board has plans to build new schools for the first time since 2010.
It hired a recruiter in October and increased its $2,000 recruitment budget to $50,000. This week, the board is being asked to approve recruiting trips to Ohio, Michigan, New York and Massachusetts — states that generally have more graduates than available jobs.
"It's not that we don't want to be home-grown, but we needed to expand our pool," human resources director Christine Pejot said, adding that the district has several critical shortage teaching areas, including science and special education.
The revival of these trips has not gone without criticism.
Some visitors to the district's Facebook page challenged the need to look outside Florida for teachers in comments on a photo of Clayton and Chasco Middle assistant principal Tom Osmun at one of the Michigan events.
United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb also has raised doubts.
"I don't think it's worth the expense," Webb said. "I'm not sure we've had that much of a shortage."
School Board vice chairman Steve Luikart expressed some concerns of his own about heading north, when the state and region have plenty of qualified teachers. He acknowledged that past trips yielded "excellent teachers" but wondered about the value of traveling in comparison to other recruiting models.
Among Luikart's questions were how many teachers were recruited in the past and how many remain five years later.
"When we get that kind of information, we'll have a better grip on how effective it is and whether it's worth the effort," he said.
Pejot did not have such details readily available, although she had several anecdotes of past successful hires. She added that the latest round of travels has generated more than 60 letters of intent from educators, some of whom already have visited Pasco County at their own expense to further explore their options.
Board member Cynthia Armstrong said attracting strong job candidates was the driving reason behind the board's decision to replenish the travel budget and hire a new recruiter.
"We've had to actively seek teachers with the enrollment going up," she said. "It's certainly going to mean looking more than just in-state."
Clayton said he has seen recruiters from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties at the same events he's attended. Pinellas County schools never stopped their recruiting, spokeswoman Donna Winchester said, focusing efforts on finding teachers in shortage areas.
Last year, Pinellas trips led to 79 interviews and seven hires, Winchester said, noting that the district has traveled to the same states that Pasco has gone to.
While there, Clayton said, he's met educators frustrated in their job searches who could be strong additions to the faculty of his or many other Pasco schools.
"I talked to a guy (Wednesday) who had been subbing for four years," Clayton said. "He wants a job."
The district had less than a dozen advertised instructional vacancies listed on Friday. But that's before its annual end-of-year reappointments, retirements, resignations, transfers and other employment activity.
In a usual year, the district hires at least a couple hundred new teachers after the shuffle.
"We're looking for the best teachers for our kids," Clayton said. "Those folks can come from anywhere."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]