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Published in Print: September 28, 2005, as Teachers Ponder Job Prospects as Districts Come Recruiting

Teachers Ponder Job Prospects as Districts Come Recruiting

Restaffing of gulf coast schools seen as problem if educators leave the region.

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Teachers who have been uprooted from their districts by Hurricane Katrina are facing a bewildering job market, waiting to hear when their schools will reopen as they ponder resettling to accept offers from far-flung locations.

Some educators are accepting temporary positions close to home that offer little long-term security. But teachers who are able to move are being courted by districts with long-standing need for personnel.

In many cases, the hiring has raised questions about pensions, tenure, insurance, and logistical issues. Some short-staffed districts were making significant accommodations last week for displaced teachers, including granting them tenure and transferring their pensions.

Administrators making plans to reopen schools battered by the storm wondered, meanwhile, whether they will have to scramble to find qualified teachers.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers last week called on Louisiana districts that had taken in large numbers of evacuated students to hire displaced teachers as well, to keep those teachers nearby.

Carol Davis, the president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said she was worried that recruitment efforts might harm her state’s schools.

“We’re caught. We want to do the best by our people, but at the same time, we want to do what’s right by our state, and we need to keep the brainpower,” said Ms. Davis, whose group is an affiliate of the National Education Association. “If all [the affected teachers] go out and find another job, and set up homes elsewhere, then what are those districts going to do to start up again?”

Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, said that Louisiana districts, which pay relatively low salaries, might have a hard time luring back departed teachers who earn more elsewhere.

No ‘Long-Term Deals’

An estimated 25,000 school district employees from Louisiana and Mississippi were displaced when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast late last month. Districts in such states as California, Nevada, and North Carolina are offering jobs to educators who are prepared to resettle.

Many Gulf-area districts in Texas and Louisiana, on the other hand, were offering teachers temporary jobs linked to students who have enrolled because of Katrina. Other districts, such as Atlanta, have tried to help by welcoming displaced teachers to their substitute lists. In the 209,000-student Houston district, officials have put more than 300 teachers on an “on-call list” to meet the needs created by the influx of displaced students. None of the required qualifications have been waived, but in some cases teachers have been given extra time to present their documentation, officials said.

“They were not guaranteed long-term deals,” said Terry Abbott, a spokesman for the district. “We don’t know if we have the kids.”

So far, about 180 teachers have received assignments and have earned pay for days worked according to the formula that applies to regular teachers, said Audrey Gomez, a human-resources manager for the district. A few speech therapists and at least two teachers from the displaced-teacher list have also been taken on permanently, she added. Houston, a prime haven for Louisianans displaced by Hurricane Katrina, was itself preparing late last week for a possible blow from Hurricane Rita.

‘Have to Be Prayerful’

It has been easy for evacuated educators to fall through the cracks.

Carl K. Butler was a special education teacher’s aide in New Orleans before he “lost everything” in the city’s flooding and was evacuated to Houston. He applied for work as an aide or a teacher in the city and the nearby Galena Park district just after Labor Day, but had yet to hear anything as of last week.

“You still have to be prayerful,” he said.

About 40 teachers from Louisiana and Mississippi attended an educators’ job fair in Little Rock, Ark., last week. Julie J. Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education, said participating districts were mainly seeking to fill positions that had been vacant since the beginning of the school year.

In Louisiana, many teachers are not even settled enough to worry about a job. Officials said most of the teachers looking for work were staying with friends or family members, rather than in shelters.

New Orleans has put out the word that its teachers should seek other jobs. Other area districts, such as nearby Plaquemines Parish, have said they plan to meet at least a few more payrolls and have asked their teachers to remain available.

Where teachers have effectively lost their jobs, their ability to maintain health insurance is uncertain. Though federal law gives them the right to buy in to their former employers’ insurance plans, some of those plans involved a self-insurance fund that is now in jeopardy.

The Ascension Parish schools, a suburban district southeast of Baton Rouge, La., that had 16,000 students before Katrina, is hiring displaced teachers for the roughly 2,000 additional students who have enrolled since the storm. Officials there decided to pay benefits in addition to a per diem wage for those teachers if their home districts stopped doing so.

Northwest of Baton Rouge, in tiny, rural Avoyelles Parish, Superintendent Ronald N. Mayeux, who doubles as the personnel director, has taken the unusual step of hiring seven displaced teachers for regular positions. The catch is that because the 6,300-student district is cash-strapped, all of its teachers have just a semester-long contract, Mr. Mayeux said.

The superintendent said he wanted to give the displaced teachers flexibility even as the district accommodates about 550 students who enrolled after Katrina.

“I explained to them if things worked out well and they could go back home, just give me a couple of days’ notice,” he said.

Some districts in the market for teachers were finding applicants to be elusive.

Indeed, most of their hires were people relocating because they had family, friends, or other personal connections, rather than for a specific job opportunity.

The 231,000-student Clark County, Nev., district had little luck when it sent recruiters to Dallas, Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., and advertised on several Web sites and in newspapers.

“Many of the people really didn’t want to relocate,” said Joan K. Schlekewy, the director of recruiting for the booming district, which includes Las Vegas. She failed, for instance, to find any recruits when she visited a shelter in Dallas.

Nevertheless, the district has hired a handful of Gulf-region teachers who had relocated to Nevada and enrolled their children in the schools. Teachers’ spouses have been offered jobs as instructional aides, cafeteria workers, coaches, and bus drivers.

“They are just trying to pull themselves together,” Marian Lauria-Davis, the supervisor of teacher recruitment in the Hillsborough County, Fla., district, said of two teachers whom she has helped find jobs.

The 740,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District advertised openings on its Web site and on several national Web sites aimed at evacuee jobseekers.

Deborah Hirsh, the chief human-resources officer, said the district plans to deploy displaced teachers it hires in temporary positions or those that will be relatively easy to leave if they choose to go back home.

South Carolina’s department of education is making every effort to woo qualified teachers to its open jobs—permanently.

The state was planning to hold a job fair at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge late last week and was working on ways to transfer pensions and offer seniority to veteran teachers.

“We’re doing everything we can to help teachers relocate to South Carolina,” said State Superintendent Inez M. Tenenbaum, “and we’d love to see the teachers relocate here on a permanent basis.”

PHOTO: Melvina Hutchinson, an elementary teacher from New Orleans living in a motel in Little Rock, Ark., talks to a recruiter from Conway, Ark., at a job fair last week.
—David Quinn/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 05, Page 14

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