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Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as Pinch Hitting

Pinch Hitting

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Physical education teacher Christopher Watkins has become an economic indicator of sorts. The back-to-school rush found his district, the 4,200-student system of St. Louis Park, in the suburbs of Minneapolis, suffering from a critical shortage of bus drivers. Officials say it was a simple case of supply and demand: Too many job openings and too few people to fill them.

The bus company that handles transportation for the district flew in drivers from the East Coast, but school leaders also issued a plea for district employees to go through intensive driver training over the Labor Day weekend. Watkins, a 27-year-old physical education teacher, answered the call. He spent the first few weeks of school behind the wheel, teaching his regular PE classes between morning and afternoon bus runs. "I never thought I'd do this as a teacher. But it was clear they really needed help, and the extra money was something my wife and I could use," Watkins says. He earns time and a half, based on his teacher's salary, for bus duty.

What's happening in St. Louis Park is a byproduct of the strong U.S. economy, observers say. The economic good times, including the lowest unemployment rates in a generation, have meant hard times for many districts nationwide that are struggling to find bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, and other support workers. Though the situation has not hit the crisis point for most districts, it is a definite concern for many, says Barbara Wheeler, president of the National School Boards Association. "The question mark is if this will continue to grow or disappear," depending on which way the economic winds blow, says Wheeler, a suburban Chicago school board member.

Nationally, the unemployment rate has hovered just below 5 percent for more than a year. The last time it was so consistently low was in the late 1960s, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Low unemployment makes for a job seeker's market. Service and retail jobs are especially plentiful, forcing school districts to compete with private industry to hire support workers, experts say. The labor crunch is especially acute in districts hit by the double whammy of a fast- growing student enrollment and a shrinking labor pool.

James Elliott is only too familiar with the tale. As a human resources administrator in the 56,000-student Seminole County, Florida, schools, he's dealt with severe shortages of janitors and day-care and cafeteria workers. "As the economy improves, and we get closer to full employment, it just gets tighter. We've seen it progressively become impossible to fill positions," he says.

In recent years, the district has cobbled together full-time jobs by hiring the same person to work, for example, as a bus monitor during the morning and afternoon and as a server in the cafeteria during lunch. The school system has also started to team up with temporary- placement agencies and groups that help find jobs for former welfare recipients. And it has boosted its cafeteria pay scale to be more competitive with the scores of restaurants serving the tourist trade in neighboring Orlando, where unemployment is a lean 3 percent.

Still, competition is stiff. "We try to compete with the outside world as far as paychecks, but they can beat us out in a bargaining situation," Elliott says. "If someone says, 'Well, McDonald's will give me $10 an hour,' we can't say, 'We'll give you $11.' We've got a budget."

When school began this fall in the Boulder Valley, Colorado, district, students brought their own lunches to school because the district had had such a tough time finding workers to run the cafeterias. Without kitchen staff, a stash of milk, juice, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was on hand for students who forgot to bring their lunches or who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

"I could get the cafeteria food," says Nancy Paluh, food-services manager for the district. "I just couldn't serve it" without any workers.

In Orlando, workers are so difficult to find that Shirley Cowans, principal of William Frangus Elementary School, has been sharing crossing-guard duty with a teacher and a guidance counselor since school started in August. Cowans says no one showed up for duty on the first day of school. "We realized we'd have to cover it ourselves," she said.

In Minnesota's St. Louis Park, it looks as if the worst of the driver shortage may be coming to an end--for now. New trainees are expected to start work soon. "We know the booming economy is definitely driving this," says superintendent Barbara Pulliam. "But no one wishes for the economy to be any different. It's quite a dilemma."

District officials are discussing ways to avoid future shortages. But in the meantime, PE teacher Watkins is happy behind the wheel. "I'll keep at it, as long as the snow doesn't fly."

--Lynn Schnaiberg

Vol. 10, Issue 3, Page 14

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