School year starts with teacher shortage 57 positions remain open
Published: September 3, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - School is in, but a large number of teachers are not.
According to V.I. Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory, as of last Thursday, the Education Department still was receiving last-minute resignations and retirement notices, exacerbating a teacher shortage that already was of great concern in July, when the commissioner gave her department's budget testimony to the 30th Legislature.
Frett-Gregory testified that teacher salaries - between $27,000 and $32,000 annually - had fallen so far below nationally competitive rates that recruitment and retention have become critical issues for the school system, which had 157 vacancies at the time of her testimony.
Since the budget hearing, the department has made about 43 new hires, but substitute teachers will have to provide coverage for at least 57 teaching positions left unfilled by the flight of qualified teachers from both districts.
The shortage will mean paying substitute teachers $17-an-hour to work indefinitely while the positions can be filled, according to Education spokeswoman Ananta Pancham.
'Worst in 37 years'
Carol Henneman, executive director of the Board of Education, expressed concern about the teacher shortage to legislators at the board's budget hearing Wednesday.
"This is probably the worst I have seen it in the 37 years I have been in education," Henneman told The Daily News on Friday.
To avoid curbing the crisis by easing in unqualified personnel, the board would not relax its policies with respect to teacher credentials and certification, Henneman said.
She told legislators last week that "having a bad teacher is worse than having no teacher" and that the damage done by an unqualified individual could take two to three years for the educational system to correct.
"These children today are very high-energy. They are very demanding. You have to really be on top of your game to be in a Virgin Islands classroom with them," Henneman said after the budget hearing. "Just because you have a person who may know their particular subject matter does not mean that they know how to teach."
Substitutes not the answer
The board will stand by its policy that substitutes be confined to teaching subjects in which they have actual degrees, Henneman said. She said that the board has concerns about using so many substitutes to do the work of teaching in so many of the territory's classrooms.
"Substitute teachers cannot be the answer," Henneman said. "They are going to cause the AYP to plummet, and they are going to put schools with accreditation status in jeopardy of losing that status."
AYP - or Adequate Yearly Progress - is a federal standard under the No Child Left Behind Act used to gauge schools' success.
Senators questioned Board of Education members as to how it could be that so many teachers had tendered resignations after the close of the 2012-2013 school year, putting the school system in a lurch within a week of school opening.
"There really is no concrete law to bar somebody from resigning at the eleventh hour," board member Terrence Joseph said.
Virgin Islands school teachers receive pay year round, with summer pay pro-rated from the 10 months of work performed during the school year.
"There are many teachers who simply do not trust the government," board member Oswin Sewer told senators Wednesday, addressing why some teachers may wait to give notice until the end of the summer.
Frett-Gregory dismissed the idea that teachers would wait until the end of the summer to resign for fear of pay being withheld. Collective bargaining agreements guarantee pro-rated pay throughout the year, she said. The department's policy is to ask teachers to resign before the end of the school year so that the department can plan around their absence, but there are no penalties for those who report they are leaving after the deadline, Frett-Gregory said.
Frett-Gregory also dismissed the idea that the last-minute personnel changes could negatively impact the quality of instruction that the territory's children will receive in school year 2013-2014.
"We have ongoing professional development, and a lot of administrative support from principals and other professionals to offer to new and substitute teachers," Frett-Gregory said.
However, parents of Guy Benjamin Elementary School students in Coral Bay, St. John, bristled at the decision last week to relocate kindergartners and first-graders to Julius Sprauve Elementary School in Cruz Bay. The kindergarten classes needed to be consolidated at one school because of unevenness in class sizes.
The first-graders had to be relocated, though, because a first grade teacher at Guy Benjamin had to be moved to teach second grade at Sprauve after a second-grade teacher abruptly resigned from Sprauve.
The teacher shortage will not necessitate more consolidations of this kind, according to Frett-Gregory, as substitutes can be used to staff classrooms and maintain teacher-student ratios dictated by collective bargaining agreements.
Zenzile Hodge, Human Resources director for the Education Department, said that the shortage is affecting both districts and all subject areas equally. She said that the severity of this year's shortage should be a call to action for the Virgin Islands community to shift the work force toward educating its youth.
"I guess this would be a good time for us to issue a public service announcement that we as a territory need to start encouraging students to consider teaching as a career path," Hodge said. "We are doing everything in our power to make sure we are doing our part to find good talent."
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.