More Teachers Scramble for Fewer S.C. Openings

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Hundreds of people packed into South Carolina's annual teachers' job fair Monday as laid-off teachers, recent college graduates, and others trying to relocate from across the nation competed for limited classroom openings.

Organizers called the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement's 21st annual job fair the most crowded in memory, with those pre-registered topping 2,000 — nearly double those signing up in advance last year — from 43 states. They were vying for a shrinking number of positions as districts struggling with budget cuts have laid off teachers and halted hiring.

"When I first pulled up, I was shocked," said Brandon Galbraith, 22, as he waited for district booths to open in an elbow-to-elbow crowd. The Beaufort native graduated last month from Winthrop University with a degree to teach social studies, a field with few openings.

Teachers of special education, math and science had much better odds, with nearly half the available jobs being in those traditionally hard-to-fill areas.

Districts across South Carolina have eliminated positions amid recession budget cuts and the uncertainty over whether they will get some $700 million in federal stimulus cash meant for education that Gov. Mark Sanford has refused to request.

The issue of stimulus cash is in the courts. A federal judge in Columbia ordered Monday that two lawsuits aimed at forcing Sanford to accept the money — one filed by two students and the other by school administrators — be returned to the South Carolina Supreme Court. A third lawsuit filed by Sanford moments after legislators overrode his budget veto remains in federal court. He is the nation's first governor to go to court over federal bailout money.

After the ruling, Sanford said he won't appeal the state high court's ruling. He wasn't optimistic the court would side with him in the months-long battle.

As of last week, there were 300 teacher jobs listed statewide. Fewer were available Monday, with just 40 percent of the state's 85 school districts attending. Some of those had no openings, but officials said they were there to collect resumes for future prospects. Districts had plenty of candidates to pick from, collecting stacks of resumes several inches thick.

That compares with 75 percent of districts attending last year, with 900 openings.

Slim prospects may have discouraged some from making the drive. In all, the event drew about 1,300 teacher-hopefuls, including nearly 700 who had pre-registered in hopes of setting up an interview in advance, said Mychal Frost, the center's spokesman.

Still, attendees stood in lines for an hour or more. Some job seekers said some open positions were filled before they reached the booth.

"I got here two hours ago, and I've been in two lines," said Spartanburg native George Gray, 22, another Winthrop graduate seeking a social studies job. He had a fallback plan: "If I don't get a job, I'll just stay in school."

Special education teacher William Carson, 50, said he left a line for Greenville schools, thinking it would shorten as the day went on, only to rejoin a much longer line later. He was told in March his Hampton District 2 job in Estill wouldn't be there this fall. Like others in his situation, Carson said his principal had no problem with him using one of the last days of class looking for another job.

He was hoping to move near family in northern South Carolina. Others weren't so picky.

"I'll move wherever I find a job," said Dwight Dodson, of Walterboro, a 23-year teaching veteran. The father of two said he was told May 12 — three days before the deadline for extending contracts — that his middle school's technology education program would be eliminated.

"They put a letter down in front of you with no warning," he said. "It was hard to swallow."

The schools chief for the state's poorest county said the supply-and-demand flip from previous years has benefited her rural district.

Ora Lee Watson, superintendent of long-troubled Allendale County schools, said she had 30 vacancies this time last year. Although it was initially listed among the event's attendees, the district backed out, with seven vacancies left and plenty of resumes to pick from, she said.

"We had a choice. We could make choices," she said. "It means we'll start with certified teachers in every classroom. Children will have a better chance for academic success."

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