State budget crisis limits jobs for education grads

With graduation at hand, many students are looking forward to the professional world and the mitigation of financial woes. For some, though, this year’s graduation couldn’t have come at a worse time. Florida’s budget crisis is causing some local areas to stretch their wallets in ways not seen since the state’s last recession in the early ’90s.

The cause of the budget crisis is threefold, said Robert Dearing, superintendent of Manatee County School District. Declining sales tax revenues, changes to property tax law and declining enrollment in Florida schools have all contributed.

Amendment 1, which changed the way property taxes are assessed, was the most prominent change to property tax legislation.

“Amendment 1, for Manatee, reduces our budget by $72 million over the next five years,” Dearing said. Manatee schools’ annual operating budget is $335 million.

Dearing sympathizes with people who voted to approve the amendment, admitting that there is an “unfair burden on the funding of education from property taxes.” He said legislators should have designated replacement monies for those that would be lost.

Manatee’s schools receive 76 percent of their funding from property tax revenues and the remainder from sales taxes, which have also declined.

“We’re getting ready to cut $21 million because of declining sales tax revenues next year,” Dearing said.

Both of these circumstances, combined with decreased enrollment in schools, mean less need for and less means to hire new teachers: “We used to hire 1,400 to 1,600 new people a year – last year we hired 240,” Dearing said.

He said, however, that the people of Florida are ultimately responsible when it comes to education.

“It is to (Floridians’) advantage to have an educated populace. It helps society as a whole to be better.”

Particularly for education majors like Mark Bonnell, who graduated from USF in December, things are uncertain at best. At 47 years old, Bonnell is a nontraditional student and an auto mechanic at Matthews Curry Ford in Venice, where he lives. He was hoping to get work in one of Sarasota County’s elementary schools.

After three internships and a 10-week stint as a substitute teacher, Bonnell might have been guaranteed a job just a few years ago. But because of budget cuts in education around the state, Bonnell will likely not get a job in Sarasota.

Though job openings have not been officially posted in many counties, Sarasota’s schools have 100 vacancies, and according to Roy Sprinkle, director of human resources for Sarasota County, most of them will probably not be filled by new employees.

Instead, he said, the county will try to “shift around” current employees or eliminate the vacancies altogether, allowing for extenuating circumstances.

“It’s just the opposite of where we’ve been for the past six or seven years … Now we’re hiring little if any,” he said, adding that, though official numbers won’t be decided until June 5, last year’s hire of more than 250 new employees is simply not going to be matched.

After 10 years working with the county of Sarasota, he said, the current budget crisis is the worst he’s seen.

Fortunately, not everyone faces such difficulties. Some counties are hiring, Sprinkle said.

“Our need was not as great because we were ahead with regard to required ratio,” he said, referring to the 2002 class size amendment requiring Florida schools to maintain certain ratios of students to teachers in elementary education and math, science, social studies and language arts classes.

Some counties are growing less rapidly, and areas such as Miami, Orlando and Tampa – places that, Sprinkle said, are still growing – will still hire new teachers.

But the priority will be to maintain compliance with the class size amendment. Dearing said he expects his schools to absorb 400 new students this year, for which he’ll have to hire 15 to 20 new teachers. For teachers of performing and fine arts, physical education, and vocational subjects, possible scenarios are less encouraging. Students will suffer, too.

“As budgets get tighter and tighter, it is very possible that we could wind up with physical education or music classes with 60 to 70 students,” said Dearing.

Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Public Schools, said she expects her county to hire as many as 1,200 or as few as 500 teachers this year.

“We have to fill positions of teachers (who will be) retiring or leaving for other reasons,” she said. She concurred that Amendment 1, sales tax revenues and enrollment all play a part, though she estimated that enrollment for Hillsborough would not rise or decline.

Hopefuls like Bonnell may have to learn how to market themselves more strategically and consider moving to a different area, said Drema Howard, director of USF’s Career Center. She pointed out that there will be a massive number of teachers retiring over the next five to seven years, and insists that they’re “not seeing any mass panic” at the Career Center or among the students who come in.

She encourages job seekers to try and find positions before they become available through regular networks, and emphasizes marketing skill sets – which, she said, for education majors, are rich.

“There are a number of things (education majors) can do outside of teaching in a classroom,” Howard said. She noted that education majors have strong organizational and planning skills, are talented problem solvers and creative thinkers, and can conduct lessons, all of which translate well to other environments, such as corporations.

Counties, however, are trying to avoid layoffs with some creative problem-solving of their own. Manatee is considering a move that will offer a pay reduction – which, if agreed to, will save existing teachers’ jobs.

Cobbe said Hillsborough has no plans to lay off teachers.

Austin Dunk, a physics teacher at Sarasota High School, isn’t worried about being laid off. He has been teaching for about four years.

But for those hoping to find new employment, he said, “Everyone’s waiting to see the final budget. It’s uncertain right now.”

For now, Bonnell will continue his job as a mechanic and remains positive.

“I’m doing fine and making a living. (I’m) fortunate to have a trade to fall back on.”

The College of Education declined to comment on this subject.