Teacher shortage has Eakins on the spot

Board members want a plan of action, and the superintendent says to expect one soon
Hillsborough County School Board Member Melissa Snively wants a plan of action to address the teacher shortage in Hillsborough County. [TIMES FILES]
Published Feb. 6
Updated Feb. 6

Members of the Hillsborough County School Board are tired of seeing classrooms without teachers, and they called on Superintendent Jeff Eakins on Tuesday to tell them what he is doing about the problem.

“We have to move on this really, really expeditiously,” board member Melissa Snively said near the close of Tuesday’s meeting. “There are students not getting the instruction that they absolutely have to have every single day. I just don’t see us having much time. Every day that goes by is a student’s opportunity for achievement and success in the classroom, and I don’t want to be responsible for taking that away from students.”

How many teachers are needed is sometimes a matter of disagreement and different numbers are used, depending on the situation.

A “leave behind” that staff prepared so board members could press lawmakers for more funding states that the number of teacher vacancies has skyrocketed this year to 341, from 195 two years ago.

The latest web-based listing shows 280 instructional jobs, and Eakins cautioned Tuesday that not all are "true vacancies."

As he has said in the past, the listings are misleading because in some cases, classes are small enough to be combined and entrusted to one strong teacher.

In other cases, subject coaches and specialists are doing the teacher's work even though the vacancy appears on the list.

"The first thing we look at in our schools is, how are you solving that issue?" Eakins said.

But Snively said she has heard from constituents who are angry that their children are spending months at a time with long-term substitutes for important classes such as algebra.

“You should not have a substitute teacher in algebra,” Snivey said. “That’s core curriculum.”

Snively asked Eakins to bring a plan of action back to the board. While the request could not be put to a vote, members Karen Perez and Stacy Hahn agreed that the current situation is not acceptable.

Perez said a lack of continuity makes things worse for children with mental health problems.

And Hahn, who comes from a career in the University of South Florida College of Education, said she has been concerned about the shortage since before she took office.

"Unfortunately, we do have substitutes and the majority are serving some of our most vulnerable children," she said.

"I will agree that if we wait to recruit in your traditional ways, it just isn't going to happen fast enough."

Eakins has said for awhile that he is considering a more accelerated recruiting plan for the 50 high-needs schools that fall under the new “Achievement” umbrella.

The district has a $30,000 contract with a human resource firm, the Alma Advisory Group, and Eakins said leaders will meet with the school board members individually over the next week to explain their strategy.

Human Resources Chief Marie Whelan said the plan could likely come before the board at its Feb. 19 meeting.

While he downplayed the number of true vacancies, Eakins also said he appreciates the need to be fully staffed. Principals, he said, have told him that “if i knew I had a high quality teacher with great expertise in front of my kids in the schools, we could probably save a lot of money on other resources that we put into our schools.”

He also said he is making teacher recruitment a top priority.

“We’re going big,” he said. “If I have to go someplace across this country to sell the Tampa, Florida to someone at a college of education somewhere that s seeking to come to a nice location, to teach in great schools with great leadership, I’m going to put myself out there to do that.”