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Hernando schools rush to hire 18 for teaching slots

(ran PW, PS editions of PASCO TIMES)

With classes set to start in a week, applicants are trickling in and school officials are putting offers on the table.

It's crunch time in Hernando County's schools.

Students return to school a week from today. But 18 teaching jobs remain unfilled. In what has become an annual ritual, district officials are counting heads, and principals are crossing their fingers in hopes that their hiring will be complete by opening day.

Teachers are supposed to return to work today to prepare for the new school year. Yet in all but a few schools, one or two classrooms will sit empty.

"Ideally, you'd have all the people hired in July," said Edd Poore, the district's director of human resources and staff development.

Officials hope there will be no repeat of 1998, when more than a dozen teaching jobs were still open on the first day of school. Many students started the year with substitutes. And some did not get a fully qualified teacher until after winter break.

The current numbers _ a week to go and nearly 20 vacancies _ look very similar to last year's. But, as of Tuesday, no school had more than three openings. And job candidates were trickling through for interviews at several buildings. In many cases, offers were on the table.

"Quite frankly, I think we are a little better off" than last year, Poore said.

Poore thinks stronger recruiting efforts by the district, coupled with the School Board's willingness to increase starting teacher salaries from $23,090 to $24,050, are making it a little easier this year. But only time _ a week of it _ will tell.

Eleven of the 18 remaining openings are in special education, perennially the field with the most profound shortage of applicants.

Poore said it is likely that a handful of Hernando County classrooms will begin with substitutes. Several more will begin with people who hold an education degree but who are teaching outside their area of expertise.

To help the situation, the teachers union has temporarily waived a provision in its contract that requires jobs to be posted for five days before someone is hired. Now, hires can be made on the spot if a principal likes the candidate.

At Springstead High, new principal Dot Dodge already had her staff in place when two teachers announced late in summer that they would not return.

"It is a disadvantage," she said of the late openings. "We just have an optimistic viewpoint."

At Moton Elementary, new principal Donnie Moen, who was Springstead's principal last year, had 10 vacancies as recently as a week ago. Today he has two.

At West Hernando Middle School, principal Ken Pritz has whittled seven teacher openings to three, which is still more than any other school in the county. He cannot explain it, but he has had more teacher turnover this year than in previous years. And filling the posts is difficult.

"We don't get a whole lot of people to come in and interview," Pritz said.

Pritz said he lost one applicant to a job with the state prison system. The deciding factor, Pritz said, was the fact that the prison system was willing to pay for the college classes the teacher needs to earn a master's degree. The state's schools do not have the money to do that.

On a larger scale, other school districts can sympathize with Pritz.

In Citrus County, which has a smaller enrollment than Hernando, 33 teaching positions were still vacant Tuesday, even though classes began Monday.

In Pasco County, which has more than twice as many students as Hernando, there are still 60 vacant teaching jobs.

"People are simply not going into the field of teaching," said Judith Kistler, director of human resources for the Pasco schools.

At least Pasco has a little more time to fill its vacancies _ classes start Aug. 23.

As in Hernando, most of the vacancies in Pasco and Citrus lie in special education. And that mirrors the situation across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

It is enough of a problem that Poore, Hernando's personnel director, said his district might have to consider drastic measures, such as cash signing bonuses for special education teachers.

"You can't get them," Poore said of special education teachers. "In the near future, we will have to look at it."