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California and the West

Las Vegas Schools Struggle to Find Enough Teachers

Education: District is hard-pressed to recruit educators for mushrooming classroom population. Affordable housing, other incentives aren't enough to compensate for low wages.

March 02, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — The burgeoning Clark County school district--which opens a new school nearly every month--has a serious math problem. It's struggling to add new teachers.

District recruiters need to hire at least 1,500 more teachers to fill new classrooms in the fall, and are now approaching the peak of the recruiting season.

It's not pretty.

A year ago this month, the Clark County Unified School District had lined up 270 teacher candidates for interviews. This month, it has appointments with only 70 candidates.

"We're working as hard as we can. We have people dedicated to following up on all leads," said George Ann Rice, the assistant superintendent for human resources. "No university or candidate can slip by us."

The problem is that almost every school district in the United States is experiencing teacher shortages--about 220,000 new teachers are needed nationwide this year alone--and recruiters are all attending the same job fairs, where new teachers can have their pick of jobs from coast to coast.

The challenge facing Clark County's schools is especially dramatic, however: Enrollment has nearly doubled in 10 years, to about 231,000 students. Since 1990, the district has opened 108 new schools. It is the sixth largest school district in the nation.

At the current pace of growth, the district needs to hire 800 to 900 teachers just to staff new classrooms, and hundreds more to replace teachers who quit or retire. Among the district's 13,000 teachers, 567 quit last year, 166 retired and 183 took temporary leaves.

State universities don't turn out enough teachers to meet the need. And although Nevada is poised to build a new state college that will prepare teachers in nearby Henderson, help from that source is years away.

Compounding the challenge, the district does not use non-credentialed, long-term substitute teachers to fill in the gaps, a tactic commonly adopted by districts in California.

So Rice and her staff beat the bushes. They send mass e-mails to deans of education across the country. Principals-turned-recruiters are dispatched to teachers career fairs in 32 other states. Video conferences are arranged for candidates whom recruiters can't meet in person.

To help sell its schools, the district's Internet site includes a video clip on all the virtues of living in Las Vegas--lots to do, affordable new housing in sparkling suburbs, no state income tax and, because of the growth, plenty of opportunities for advancement.

The district has even resorted to offbeat advertising at McCarran International Airport, where signs seek to grab the attention of teachers visiting as tourists.

"More career opportunities. More new schools. More all-you-can-eat buffets. Is this a great place to teach or what?" reads one. "Elvis has left the building. We now have a vacancy at our school," reads another.

But all that doesn't necessarily outweigh one troubling fact: Candidates who don't factor in the relatively low cost of living in Las Vegas may be put off by the starting salary--$26,847 a year. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, a new teacher in the fall will earn $39,974.

No salary increases are in store for Nevada's teachers any time soon. The most that Gov. Kenny Guinn was able to offer teachers in his proposed budget was a 5% one-time bonus.

A teacher-backed initiative petition to assess a 4% tax on businesses in Nevada for education was ruled unconstitutional Tuesday because it called for more money to be spent on schools than the tax would have generated.

Legislators are considering a bill that would help alleviate the teacher shortage in Clark County by offering a double-dipping incentive to retired teachers: We'll pay you to return to the classroom, and you can still earn your full retirement benefits.

But Las Vegas finds itself outgunned by some districts aggressively courting the same teachers. Many offer incentives, including relocation reimbursement, housing subsidies, signing bonuses and paying off existing school loans.

When Louisiana State University recently invited Clark County to attend a teachers job fair, it included a checklist of what incentives Las Vegas could offer its students, "and to every question, I had to answer no," Rice said. "I'm thinking, maybe we shouldn't even go to that fair. How many graduates would come to our table?"

Indeed. Mary Feduccia, director of career services at LSU, said most of the university's teacher graduates accept jobs in neighboring Texas, where districts offer such things as free laptop computers, discounts for car repairs, home cleaning services and day care and cash bonuses for teachers with certificates in math or science.

Other students, Feduccia said, are drawn to dynamic cities like Atlanta "where they can meet a lot of young professionals their age, and where there's lots of potential for career growth. Students don't look at Vegas that same way."

At Los Angeles Unified, hiring boss Irene Yamahara empathizes. She's been hiring 4,000 to 4,700 teachers in each of the last four years to accommodate growth and to fill ranks that sustain a turnover rate of nearly 7% annually.

"We're all having the same problem, and we commiserate with one another," she said.

Rice is hopeful that, by summer's end, she'll have found enough teachers to do the job. "If I wanted to fill the jobs with not-so-great candidates, I could do that tomorrow," she said. "We're not going to do that."

In a worst-case scenario, she said, she could fill an empty classroom next fall with long-term substitutes--college graduates who are licensed as substitutes but do not have teaching credentials--as she continued to recruit.

She doesn't think, she said, it will get to that. "But," she said, "I've never had a year as tough as this year."

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