Concern about a teacher shortage can be heard from Washington to Tallahassee to the School Board dais in Volusia County, but the scope of the shortage is difficult to pin down locally — even as evidence of its effects piles up in the form of arrest reports.
In the first week in January, the district’s website listed 24 instructional vacancies, a figure many teachers openly deride. For it to be true, 99.5 percent of the district’s 4,529 teaching positions would have to be filled.
When asked if 24 vacancies in Volusia Schools seemed low, teachers union President Elizabeth Albert replied “absolutely.” At a meeting of union members from just six schools, she said, they could think of 17 teacher vacancies between them. In an informal check by the teachers union, teachers from 17 schools replied to Albert via email to count a combined 42 vacancies.
Part of the murkiness has to do with the fact that it’s a number in flux. The district is constantly recruiting and hiring new employees, teachers included. Even the estimated 24 vacancies is just a snapshot on a particular week or day.
The problem is exacerbated in Volusia because principals don’t always report openings to the district, opting instead to handle the search on their own. That leaves the district without a clear picture of its teacher shortage at a time when Florida school districts are struggling to staff classrooms, something Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas told the state Board of Education was a “major concern” last week.
“There are just not enough teachers on the bench and the bench is not deep,” Thomas said. “Enrollment in colleges of education is down. Superintendents have to use substitutes to fill the gaps. Ultimately, the education of our students will suffer.”
On Jan. 2, the Florida Education Association counted 2,200 teaching vacancies statewide — 700 more than the previous year. The critical shortage areas in Florida include science, English and math teachers. Volusia also struggles to staff ESE and elementary teaching positions.
That dearth of good teaching candidates combined with low unemployment leaves school officials in a bind when it comes to filling teaching and substitute positions. The Volusia district’s hiring practices were called into question after 12 district employees or former employees, including four substitutes, were arrested or involved in criminal activity in 2018.
The most extreme example was a man who was fired from a teaching position in Volusia but continued to substitute teach for another eight months and went on in November to kill two woman and injure five others at a Tallahassee yoga studio before killing himself.
[READ MORE: Tallahassee yoga shooter was fired as Volusia teacher amid complaints he touched, ‘stared’ at girls]
Volusia officials noted at the time that their protocols for making new hires exceed what’s required by the state.
School Board Chairman Carl Persis sees a connection between the teacher shortage and some of the district’s recent personnel problems.
“There is such a shortage, of not just teachers but also substitutes,” said Persis, a former principal. “If there’s a sub, if a person is out there and has passed all the screenings, drug tests and fingerprints, and is certified to teach, we usually are very receptive of that person.”
Volusia County has 1,345 substitute teachers who can fill in when teachers are out, sometimes for extended periods of time. Of those, 218 are “certified subs,” who have state certification and sometimes actual teaching experience, which are the ones the district hires to fill positions that will be vacant for more than 30 days.
The reasons cited for the shortage vary. Some people argue it’s an issue of salary; some say the state’s new certification process for teachers is overly difficult; some say the state’s testing requirements put an undue burden on teachers.
“There is a worldwide — not a nationwide, a worldwide — shortage of teachers,” said Superintendent Tom Russell. “Teaching is extremely hard. It’s hard work.”
Part of the problem with vacancies stems from difficulties in recruiting teachers to come to Volusia. The other facet is retaining teachers from year to year.
In the 2017-2018 school year, Volusia retained 85 percent of teachers according to the approved operating budget. That works out to 719 teachers lost.
[READ MORE: Volusia County schools aim for an A, but face obstacles Florida doesn’t count]
A News-Journal analysis of the seven A-rated school districts in the state with more than 40,000 students showed that in many areas that affect student performance, like household income and curriculum, Volusia is consistently at a disadvantage in its efforts to improve on its B grade.
It has the lowest average teacher salary and the least experienced teachers. Some of those top-rated districts, like St. Johns, Sarasota and Collier counties, have retention rates that top 90 percent.
If Volusia’s teacher retention rate were to improve by 5 percent, that would equal 241 teachers last year that wouldn’t have left the district.
The Flagler County school district has no vacancies, and it retained 94 percent of teachers last year. Flagler’s average teacher salary tops $50,000; Volusia’s is $45,585.
Volusia employs many practices to recruit and retain teachers, including going to job fairs and sending feelers out to colleges across the country. The district hosts a transfer fair, so current teachers can move to another school if they wish. The district has a “Welcome Wagon” to greet new teachers, a Rookie of the Month program and other programs at the school and district level designed to make new teachers feel at home.
Volusia’s retention rate for new teachers last school year was 51 percent.
“I think overall, in the court of public opinion I think that public school is taking a beating right now,” said Albert, the union president. “Until people change their minds about what their priorities are, I think it’s going to be hard to get people to come into this profession and particularly come into this county to work.”
If you are an educator, parent or student with a story to tell about the effects of the teacher shortage, please email education writer Cassidy Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.