BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board agreed this week to fund the district's first teacher recruiting trip to New York state in recent memory.
Though the expense is small — less than $1,000 for Springstead High School principal Carmine Rufa to attend a job fair in Cortland, N.Y. — it's a sign of a larger issue: a potential long-term shortage of qualified teachers.
Rufa said the trip to the fair next month at his alma mater, State University of New York at Cortland, is in response to a high national demand for teachers, especially in science and math, and Hernando's aging population of teachers.
"We're going to need 14 teachers (at Springstead) in the next two years" because of retirements, Rufa said. "I want to get some top-notch people to replace them."
He also contacted principals throughout the district and found a need for science and math teachers at several middle and high schools.
That's not surprising, said Jo Ann Hartge, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
"Maybe one-third of the teachers in this county are ready to retire in the next five years," Hartge said.
Colleges have produced fewer education majors in recent years, she said, and Florida has a difficult time attracting teachers from this shrinking pool, partly because of a controversial 2011 law that eliminated professional services contracts for experienced teachers.
The law allows principals to cut loose teachers at the end of the school year without cause, she said, and the lack of job security is a concern to potential teachers.
The average teacher salary in Hernando last school year was $43,788, about $4,000 lower than the state average, according to the state Department of Education website.
Added to that disadvantage, many other states offer better pay than Florida, Hartge said. And the district must compete not only against them, said human resources director Sarah Meaker, but against industries that can offer better salaries than education.
"As the economy turns around and more options are created, it's going to lead to a teacher shortage," Meaker said.
On the other hand, the lack of a state income tax plays in Florida's favor, she said, as does the low cost of living in Hernando. And she disagreed with Hartge about the importance of job security. It's not a big factor for teachers right out of college, she said, because they don't envision spending their entire career with the first district that hires them. And older teachers often have pensions from previous jobs.
Any teachers that Hernando does hire will have to wait at least until next year to start working, superintendent Lori Romano said after Tuesday's School Board meeting.
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The district's enrollment has dropped slightly in the second half of the current year, as it often does, she said. That means a funding cut from the state and, for the rest of the school year, a hiring freeze for teachers.
Contact Dan DeWitt at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow @ddewittttimes.