Education

Houston schools superintendent: Economy behind hiring woes

PERRY -- Houston County schools Superintendent Mark Scott believes the nation’s economic recession still impacts the pool of teaching candidates.

Even though the county came through the worst of its lean times budget-wise in 2008, Scott said an expected deficit in science and math teachers could have its roots in the recession.

The furloughs and other budget cuts students saw and heard about during the downturn likely had an effect on their post-secondary choices, and those students are now graduating college and hitting the workforce.

“If you think about it, when we were in the deepest part of our financial woes in the state, we were in furloughs and all those kind of things; kids who were in high school were hearing their teachers talk about being furloughed, about not getting raises and all that,” he said. “Now as a high school student, do you think they were rushing out to sign up to be a teacher at college?”

Teachers are still getting their state-mandated step increases related to experience, but they haven’t gotten additional cost-of-living raises for some time.

While Scott said he hasn’t seen specific numbers from the area’s colleges and universities, he knows what he saw last year when the system held its recruitment fair.

“This past year, we had a difficult time finding high school math and science teachers. I don’t think that’s going to get any better,” he said, adding that the struggles don’t extend across the board. “We still do have a lot of applicants when we have an elementary job open. We’ll have 300 applicants for every elementary job we have.”

COLLEGE LEVEL

Alejandra Sosa, Mercer University’s director of undergraduate admissions, said the university hasn’t experienced a decrease in students interested in the education field.

Still, those programs haven’t received the same boost in enrollment that other programs such as the sciences and engineering have in recent years. Sosa attributed that lack of growth to the “return on investment” students might expect in those other career fields, though.

“I can tell you we have not seen growth in education,” she said. “Kids are going into science, and kids are going into engineering because those are high-paying jobs.”

First-year teachers in Houston County can make anywhere from $34,000 to about $50,000 depending on education and certification level. According to a report on www.degreedirectory.org, entry-level engineering salaries range between an average of $54,000 for environmental engineers and $66,000 for aerospace engineers.

Edward Hill, dean of Fort Valley State’s College of Education, pointed to other trends within public education. In addition to salary differences compared with other fields, teachers are also facing more costs for licensure tests and other measures before getting hired

That cost can reach $1,500 on top of the cost of tuition and other college expenses, leading Hill to say that the public school system as a whole might be “out-pricing” its potential candidates.

“So you’re looking at the dispersion of students that feel like they’re not going to get the value for what they’re paying for their degree,” Hill said.

Not all colleges have experienced the decrease in enrollment. David Fuller, the dean of Middle Georgia State College’s School of Education, said the school’s undergraduate programs aren’t “bursting at the seams” but have experienced growth since a dip during the recession.

“Ours has been pretty steady,” he said of the recent enrollment trend.

NEXT STEPS

Regardless of the reason for any decrease in science and math teachers, Houston County’s administration is taking steps to overcome it. The county will still host its own recruitment fair on March 21, but the efforts won’t end there.

“We’re being proactive; we’re stepping up some of our recruiting this year,” Scott said. “We’re going to some colleges this year. We’ve already been to one recruitment fair already this year.”

The school system’s budgeting process might have also played a role in the hiring struggles. In years past, there would often be a month between interviews at recruitment fairs and the actual job offer because the board hadn’t finalized contracts and schools’ allotments for new hires.

“We’ve already talked to our board about getting our contracts out early, giving our allotments to our schools early,” Scott said. “This year at our job fair, we’re hoping to be hiring at that point.”

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.

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