Local news

The market’s tough for would-be teachers

Carrie Palmateer has attended the Washington Educators Career Fair held in Spokane each spring for the past four years.

She still hasn’t landed a teaching job.

“This area is totally saturated with teachers,” Palmateer said. “The competition is fierce.”

And the job prospects are likely to be made worse by state and local school district budget deficits, coupled with the downturn in the economy.

“I’m worried,” said Eric Cooke, a 23-year-old would-be teacher from Post Falls, attending his last year at Eastern Oregon University. “There are not a lot of openings.”

Robert Homburg, 25, who graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree to teach high school social studies, said his job prospects are “almost impossible.”

But he was still hopeful as he stood in line Tuesday with more than 300 other would-be teachers waiting to visit with representatives from about 70 school districts from seven states.

Organizers for the annual job fair, sponsored by the Washington State School Personnel Association, said 70 percent fewer school districts expressed interest in recruiting in Spokane this year. Usually districts from 14 states attend, looking to recruit top teaching candidates from the four area colleges and universities pumping out educators each year. A similar event is held in Tacoma, and more districts have said they will attend there.

“It’s about public perception,” said Chris Burton, WSSPA executive director. Cash-strapped school districts don’t want to appear wasteful by flying administrators to two recruiting events.

On the flip side, the percentage of prospective teachers registering for the job fairs went up by 30 percent.

“In the past it’s always been high demand, low supply,” Burton said.

Now it’s the other way around, as local districts hold their breath and wait for the state Legislature to end its session. Only then will they know exactly how much to cut or keep.

Districts are also waiting to find out if the federal stimulus package will help them.

Meanwhile, fewer teachers have submitted letters of intent to retire, which could mean fewer jobs for new teachers – and staff reductions..

“We’re finding people are really nervous about whether they can afford to retire or not,” said Stacey Vesneske, assistant superintendent for human resources for Spokane Public Schools.

Teachers have lost money in private and state retirement accounts are worried about rising health care costs, she said.

“Right now we are behind pace” for retirements, said Jay Rowell, executive director for human resources for the Central Valley School District. The district usually has about 26 retirements each year.

Another factor for job-seekers: how much money schools will lose in the state budget process. In her budget, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed reducing funding through the voter-approved Initiative 728, which was meant to reduce class sizes by providing money for more teachers.

If those I-728 jobs were lost, layoffs would be possible. (They’d be made by seniority. A teacher with 30 years of experience in the state of Washington keeps that seniority no matter how long they may have been with an individual district.)

And that would mean even fewer openings for new teachers. Spokane Public Schools already has a candidate pool of 1,800 and will probably receive between 400 and 500 new applicants.

If a position at an elementary school opens, between 80 and 100 applicants will apply for it, Vesneske said.

“What I keep telling people is not to lose hope, even though it’s going to be a very difficult budget year,” Vesneske said. She said there’s likely to be openings in late July or August, right before school starts.

Teachers qualified to teach math, science or special education are in high demand and have a greater chance of getting hired, officials said. Speech pathology is also another critical shortage area.

And, if prospective teachers are willing to relocate, chances are better at finding work.

The 63,000-student El Paso (Texas) Independent School District was offering $6,000 bonuses and $1,500 in moving expenses for qualified teachers at the fair Tuesday.

The district offers a starting salary of $42,500 for new teachers.

In Washington, a teacher with no experience would start at $34,426 this year. The salary rises with experience and educational advancement.

Representatives from the El Paso district attended the job fair last year but didn’t recruit anybody, said Gloria Lane, director of secondary personnel and recruiting.

This year, about 10 applicants expressed serious interest, she said.

“It’s a sign of the times,” Lane said.

Contact Sara Leaming at (509) 459-5533 or saral@spokesman.com.

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