Schools scramble to fill vacant slots

The RPSB's new bus routing system is operating smoothly for the 2022-2023 school year.
The RPSB's new bus routing system is operating smoothly for the 2022-2023 school year.(KALB)
Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 8:14 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Florida students began returning to classrooms this week amid a teacher and support-staff shortage, with some counties still advertising positions and exploring “creative options” to fill vacancies.

In Bay County, a Panhandle district with roughly 26,600 students, school officials were still looking to hire teachers on the eve of the first day of classes.

“We’re still advertising about 40 instructional vacancies and about 50 support vacancies, so that’s certainly not where we’d like to be,” Sharon Michalik, director of communications for the district, told the News Service of Florida on Tuesday.

The district made some headway in the weeks leading up to the school year, Michalik said, in part by holding a job fair that led to about 130 new employees, including teachers, substitutes and support staff.

The district also has tried to take advantage of various resources passed by the state Legislature and approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis, such as a new $15 minimum wage for school support staff.

But in Bay County, where Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc nearly four years ago, inflated housing prices have put an additional strain on the district’s recruiting efforts.

“I think that probably everybody is facing the housing crunch to some extent, but it is particularly acute in Bay County because so much housing was destroyed when Hurricane Michael came through,” Michalik said.

Supply-chain issues and a rise in the cost of materials caused by the coronavirus pandemic also slowed the region’s rebuilding process. Housing and rent prices pose a particularly uphill battle when trying to lure out-of-town candidates to the North Florida district.

“We’ve seen many people accept positions and then have to decline them because, although they felt the salary was fine, they couldn’t find an affordable place to live,” Michalik said. “That’s a big challenge because obviously we’re the school system and we can’t get into the housing business.”

Michalik said the district recently held a workshop geared toward helping teachers and parents take advantage of a new $100 million state program to help people such as teachers, healthcare workers and police officers buy homes. Funding for the “Hometown Heroes” housing program, which DeSantis signed off on earlier this year, offers borrowers up to $25,000 on first mortgage loans for down-payment and closing-cost assistance.

Bay County school officials also have mulled ideas such as asking apartment complexes to offer discounts for educators.

State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr., who was tapped for the position by DeSantis this spring and began the job in June, said addressing the statewide teacher shortage has been “definitely one of my priorities coming in” to the role.

“Obviously, not only the state of Florida but the entire nation and really the world, we’re facing a teacher shortage. And it’s only increasing with what we’ve seen in the employment world with COVID,” Diaz said during a panel discussion hosted by the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations last month.

While most school districts started the school year Wednesday, the challenge of scrambling to hire educators and personnel such as bus drivers has lingered since the summer break.

A February report by the state Department of Education said that just shy of 4,500 teacher vacancies existed in schools around the state as the previous academic year wound down.

A lack of support staff such as bus drivers and food service workers also has presented a challenge. The Florida Education Association in January counted more than 9,500 teaching and staff positions advertised on school websites.

The Leon County school district, which has about 32,300 students, also was looking to hire employees a day before school began. The district had 31 teaching positions posted on Tuesday and needed about 15 to 20 more bus drivers to be complete, district spokesman Chris Petley told the News Service.

More populous areas also are feeling the crunch.

Orange County Schools — which, with more than 205,000 students, is among the nation’s 10 largest districts — similarly was scrounging to fill vacancies the day before students returned.

“Of our 14,382 instructional staff we currently have about 100 classroom vacancies. The district is planning to deploy district personnel to fill these vacancies, if needed. These numbers are fluid due to the fact that some candidates may still be going through the hiring process,” Michael Ollendorff, media relations manager for Orange County schools, told the News Service Tuesday.

The district also was trying to hire 100 bus drivers in addition to the 700 drivers already employed by the school system.

Ollendorff said new hires will receive a $1,500 sign-on bonus and, “pending union ratification,” pay rates for bus drivers will start at $16.65, depending on experience.

State lawmakers since 2020 have earmarked about $2 billion aimed at increasing teacher salaries. Legislators also have tried other approaches, such as a new program designed to tap into the potential of more than 1.5 million veterans who live in Florida. The “Military Veterans Certification Pathway” allows vets who have not earned a bachelor’s degree but have at least 60 college credits to obtain a five-year temporary teaching certificate.

While school staffing has been challenging for some time, Florida Association of District School Superintendents CEO Bill Montford said the issue has become “much more difficult this year and the problem much more serious” this year.

“And there are a multitude of reasons why. You have COVID, and quite frankly the whole atmosphere of being a classroom teacher today is just more challenging than it was even a few years ago,” Montford said in an interview.

District-level personnel around the state have stepped in to help cover teaching vacancies, Montford said.

For example, Montford said he recently spoke to the superintendent of rural Liberty County, who told Montford he is credentialed to drive a school bus in the event that a driver isn’t available.

Meanwhile, among what Michalik called “creative options” Bay County’s teachers are being offered supplemental pay to teach during planning periods.

In an era of heightened school security, Montford pointed out that schools have to be more selective about where they seek help.

“You know, a generation ago, you could have a parent say, ‘Well I’ll come up and volunteer today to help out.’ Well, there are so many precautions we have to take now, that makes it a little difficult, as well,” he said.

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