Education

After years of layoffs, California schools on a teacher hiring binge

Vancouver Public Schools representative Vicky Barnes talks to a teaching candidate last week at a recruitment expo at Sacramento State. Barnes said the Washington school district is looking to hire 200 teachers.
Vancouver Public Schools representative Vicky Barnes talks to a teaching candidate last week at a recruitment expo at Sacramento State. Barnes said the Washington school district is looking to hire 200 teachers. aseng@sacbee.com

After years of pink slips and layoffs, California school districts have emerged from the recession with plans to hire 21,500 teachers for the 2015-16 academic year at a pace not seen in a decade, according to new state data.

Schools are using additional teachers to reduce class sizes and bolster offerings in math, science and foreign languages, thanks to additional state tax revenue from economic growth, as well as a 2012 tax hike.

It marks a reversal for a field whose hiring rules made fledgling teachers particularly wary during the economic downturn. New teachers were vulnerable to layoffs as districts cut staff based largely on seniority, and newcomers fortunate enough to keep a job faced the annual prospect of being reassigned to a different grade level, subject or school.

At a recruitment fair last week at California State University, Sacramento, however, the situation had flipped as districts from California, Nevada and Washington promoted their unique benefits and pay as they competed for job candidates.

Jeannette Niswonger, who spent years in accounting, said she was glad she stuck with her pursuit of a second career in teaching.

“I was told teachers didn’t make enough money,” said Niswonger, a CSUS graduate student. “They work longer hours. They use their own money to pay for school supplies.”

In Lancaster, Niswonger, 37, got a taste of working with students when she coached volleyball on the side. She attended community college and transferred to CSUS in 2011 to pursue her new career.

At the Sacramento State recruitment expo, some districts offered on-the-spot interviews or hiring bonuses. Some touted their locales.

Jesus Jimenez, principal at Indio Middle School, opened a slick, eight-page Desert Sands Unified School District brochure emphasizing the area’s natural beauty and recreation. Desert Sands’ teaching salary starts at about $44,000, the brochure said. But Jimenez said that could grow by up to 8 percent in August, depending on labor negotiations.

Some districts are holding their own job fairs as well. Elk Grove Unified School District held a recruitment fair in March and called for language teachers in Spanish, Japanese and French and for those in math, physical sciences and special education.

The district, the fifth-largest in California, has about 3,400 teachers and calculated it will need about 150 more for the fall, a number that continues to grow, said district spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton.

That includes teachers for the Elk Grove Unified’s new Marion Mix Elementary School, which opens this fall. Initial enrollment, fed largely by transfers from nearby schools, is projected at 400.

Not every district is hiring at the same pace. Two large local districts facing flat or declining enrollment, San Juan and Sacramento City unified school districts, plan to hire fewer teachers this fall than they did last year.

San Juan, which hired nearly 190 teachers for 2014-15, projects up to 80 additional teachers for the fall. Sacramento City, which brought nearly 100 teachers on board this year, expects to cut hiring in half for the next school year. Each district employs about 2,000 teachers.

Local districts may have a leg up in hiring Sacramento State students. But other districts provided stiff competition at the recent job fair, including those beyond drought-stricken California.

“We are hoping some people will want to come to green, green Washington,” said Vicky Barnes of Vancouver Public Schools, which is hiring 200 teachers.

Ashley Carriker, 22, of Elk Grove said she had planned to stay in Sacramento County after she finishes her credential program in the coming weeks. But after touring the expo, she said, “There are some great school districts outside the area.”

Carriker said one touted two laptop computers for every three students. “As great as the districts are in Sacramento, they are so large, they don’t have the technology,” she said.

Luis Aguirre, 23, of Woodland, also about to complete his credential program at CSUS, said he had planned to remain here. Now he’s not so sure.

Districts at the recruitment expo were welcoming and encouraging, Aguirre said. And he was particularly impressed with the pitch from Greenfield Union School District in Monterey County.

The Greenfield pitch: Students leave early on Thursdays so teachers can pursue professional development. The district pays for materials and testing for certain after-school professional development programs. It offers $5,000 in bonuses to new hires, spread over two years.

And it pays for two years of professional education required for new teachers. Sacramento County’s largest districts will do the same starting in the fall, according to the Sacramento County Office Of Education.

Professor Pia Wong, chair of the teaching credentials department at CSUS, said the increased hiring signals that a supply-demand imbalance could occur in the next few years.

“We have to start working right now with our sophomores and juniors and getting the word out to them that there are jobs again,” Wong said. “If districts were to come to us today and say, ‘We need more,’ we would be hard pressed.”

Tom Alves, executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association, said there is no shortage of credentialed teachers.

“They’re out there,” he said. But after a decade of pink slips and layoffs, teachers were discouraged. As the recession eased, many turned to career opportunities outside education.

Now he sees new opportunities for the profession. Class-size reduction and retirement will allow many districts to increase diversity among their teaching ranks and better reflect the student population, he said.

And he believes the shift to Common Core State Standards, which he thinks emphasizes problem solving over high-stakes testing, will open the door to more rewarding and challenging teaching careers.

“In the last 15 to 20 years,” Alves said, “this is the first time I’m really excited about encouraging people to go into teaching.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.

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