Pinellas County schools perplexed by decline in volunteers

Published July 14, 2013

School volunteers perform valuable work, shepherding kids to field trips or giving them a boost with tutoring. "They are the heart and soul of what makes a good school function," said Michelle Roberge, volunteer coordinator for Pinellas schools.

But over the last three school years, the number of volunteers in Pinellas County's school system has dropped almost 23 percent. And the work hours they provide are down about 28 percent.

School officials are hard-pressed to pin down a reason.

Student enrollment has decreased, but not that much.

The weak economy has left some families pressed for cash and unable to sacrifice time like they used to. "A lot of families say, 'I'm not able to volunteer like I once was because I had to go back to work,' " Roberge said. But that hasn't seemed to affect neighboring Hillsborough County, where volunteer hours rose by 29 percent over the same three years.

One factor could be the district's decision a year ago to enforce a background check requirement more strictly, obligating some volunteers to provide fingerprints, plus pay a fee of about $50 to cover the cost. However, district officials said they doubted the requirement was a big reason for the decline.

Whatever the reasons, Pinellas administrators emphasize that volunteer numbers are estimates.

"This is not a perfect science," said Melanie Marquez Parra, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County school system.

Parra and Roberge said a new system for reporting volunteer hours has confused some people. It debuted two years ago and requires a user ID and password.

It may be affecting numbers between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, they said, which doesn't explain the 14 percent drop in volunteer hours that occurred this past year.

Getting volunteers to record their hours has always been a struggle, Roberge said. "Many volunteers don't want to put their hours in because they feel it's boastful."

In the 2010-11 school year, the county had almost 22,500 active volunteers who reported hours. Now that number is about 17,250.

Losing volunteers means losing millions of dollars in work. Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofits and corporate giving programs, valued a Florida volunteer at $18.85 an hour in 2011, based on wage data. Losing almost 300,000 volunteer hours since 2010-11, as Pinellas has, translates to a loss of $5.5 million.

The district has been strictly enforcing its volunteer background check policy since 2012, when a review found its 2009 rules hadn't been consistently applied. When stricter checks debuted, some warned they would affect volunteer numbers.

Under the enforced rules, volunteers who have unsupervised contact with students — such as driving kids to an event — must undergo more rigorous "Level II background screening," including fingerprinting.

Though the majority of volunteer work in schools does not require Level II checks, School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said screenings have played a part in the reduction of volunteers.

"There was some misunderstanding in the beginning about who had to have background checks," she said. Some schools mistakenly told volunteers they'd need Level II screening to work with children at all, Cook said.

The fee is a sticking point, especially for low-income families. "We may have lost some people because $50 was something they were unable to afford or put toward that," Cook said.

But other officials said money shouldn't be an issue, as some schools, parent-teacher associations and businesses have offered to pay for those in need.

Roberge said most people understand the need for safety.

"Yes, we've had a few incidents where a parent said, 'I can't believe this,' " she said. "But generally, when we explain it to them, they say, 'Oh, I get it.' "

Some activists say background checks are unnecessary. Lenore Skanazy, author of Free-Range Kids, said using worst-case scenarios to determine everyday interactions induces paranoia.

"You really have to dream up a very bizarre and horrific scenario to believe your children are in danger," she said. "I don't want to have to be scrutinized to bring the cupcakes as the class mom."

But School Board member Robin Wikle said changing the policy would be tough.

"Once you implement a policy regarding safety and security, it's very difficult to relax it," she said. "I would be hard-pressed to go back."

To fill the gaps, the district is hosting its first volunteer recruitment fair in August. And a redistribution of volunteer coordinators might help, Cook said. This fall, each school will have a coordinator for at least half the school day.

Hillsborough County's policy is similar to Pinellas' and requires Level II screening for volunteers who have "one-on-one unsupervised interaction" with students. But that Level II screening doesn't require fingerprinting or a fee, said Donna Houchen, executive director of SERVE, the volunteer arm of the Hillsborough school district.

And unlike in Pinellas County, the system hasn't changed in roughly a decade.

"That might be part of the difference between us and Pinellas," Houchen said. And in Hillsborough, schools that fail to report volunteer hours receive estimates based on the data from similar schools.

Pinellas County uses only reported numbers.

Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report.