Just rearrange the deck chairs

Just rearrange the deck chairs


Why are our local school systems going to a job fair when they’re cutting jobs?

Story by Chris Graham
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It seems counterintuitive at first glance – to have a job fair to recruit potential new employees when the economic reality that you’re facing has you considering deep and painful cuts to staff. So when it was brought to my attention that the Waynesboro school system was spending what I was told was more than $3,000 to take part in a teacher-recruitment fair at James Madison University this weekend, yeah, I did a doubletake.

Turns out that the figure cited to me was low – it’s actually going to cost the city school system $5,000 to take part in the Shenandoah Valley Job Fair. It also turns out that Augusta County and Staunton and administrators from school systems in several neighboring localities are going to be there. And all, it seems to me, after looking into the matter, for good reason.

“We experience between a 9 and 15 percent turnover in professional staff each year due to attrition – retirements, relocations, life changes, et cetera. Because this may occur within an unpredictable timeline and varied endorsement areas, we must be certain we maintain an adequate pool of applicants with varied levels of experience, licensure and endorsements,” said Vermell Grant, the assistant superintendent in the central office at Waynesboro Public Schools.

Which is to say, the outside-looking-in wisdom that, OK, you’re having to cut jobs, you have some people retiring, some people moving, so just move people around internally, and you’ve got it all covered, doesn’t work in practice.

“The community should understand that teachers are not just a ‘general’ teacher. All have licensure and NCLB requires under the provisions of highly qualified teachers that we only use teachers who have appropriate state licensure for the area in which they are teaching. For example, I cannot put a laid-off elementary teacher in a high-school math spot. Yes, both are teachers, but the licensure doesn’t match,” Staunton Public Schools Superintendent Steven Nichols explained to me.

“The issue for us, like with other school divisions, is that some of the people that we’re losing that are retiring and others that are deciding to go elsewhere that are specialty people, and I’ve got to be able to fill those positions with people that are highly qualified. That’s why we’re going to the job fair. I’m looking for math and science and other people that not just anybody can walk in off the street and teach these subjects,” Augusta County School Superintendent Gary McQuain said by way of buttressing that bigger point.

The school systems are still conceding some ground to the economic reality of the times. All have cut back on their expenses related to their participation in the job fair. McQuain said the county school system usually schedules in the area of 600 interviews in the mass-interview arrangement at the job fair; this year the move was made to cut back to 400 interviews. Grant spelled out a plan for Waynesboro Public Schools that has it conducting around 80 fewer interviews at the job fair than it does normally and reducing the staff that will be engaged in the interview process by 20 percent.

One area of questions left unanswered – OK, so you can’t just move teachers around internally to cover your bases, and you might have some tough jobs to fill. But does that necessitate spending several thousand dollars on a job fair? Don’t you get enough applications as a matter of course to be able to fill open slots?

The answer to that one – well, yeah, there’s always a healthy pool of applicants, just maybe not necessarily all that jazzed up about moving to the mountains.

“We know that the candidates who attend this job fair are giving serious consideration to living here or relocating to our area,” said Grant, noting that location, location, location was a key reason the local school divisions organized the first job fair back in the 1990s, “because of the difficulty we face in competing with other divisions around the country and state in attracting prime teaching candidates.”

A common question in interviews with job applicants who come into contact with local school divisions by the more traditional means – “Now, where is Waynesboro/Staunton/Augusta County again?”

“Many applicants have shared that the opportunity to make a personal contact with a school division has influenced their decision of whether or not to submit an application or even to accept a position, if offered,” Grant said. “This also enables us to identify those candidates we would like to contact initially as a part of a selection process when an opening occurs. This is the most effective use of time in promptly making that contact with candidates and decreases the time spent reviewing applications by administrators and staff.”

And then the bigger issue – that the premise to our unanswered question, that there are plenty of qualified applicants who have self-selected their interest in coming to the Valley, overstates the reality.

The simple fact of the matter: “We cannot rely solely on the fact that candidates will by chance choose to apply to Waynesboro,” Grant said.

So they’re recruiting people for jobs in a time of job cuts, and I’m saying it makes sense. And it does. You can’t make a kindergarten teacher into an AP physics teacher any more than you can make an AP physics teacher a kindergarten teacher.

Tip of the cap to the school systems for cutting back on their expenses related to the job fair this year. We’re probably only talking about a few thousand dollars in the grand scheme of things, but even if just symbolic that’s a sign that the people in charge are paying attention, I think.

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