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July 26, 2014

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The Recruiter

Anaheim, Calif.

Kim Grytdahl is squirming, and not just because he's wearing women's knee-highs under his slacks.

Grytdahl has come to a conference for science teachers in California to recruit for the Clark County School District. But he quickly discovered that he has competition from other school districts. He is outmanned and under-accessorized - and he's already sick of those recruiters from San Diego.

Grytdahl's day job is principal of Thurman White Middle School in Henderson. On this spring Thursday he volunteered to help the district look for teachers, competing against dozens of full-time recruiters who know all of the tricks.

Across the aisle at the Anaheim Convention Center's exhibit hall, Grytdahl sees a booth staffed by four professionals from the Los Angeles School District.

To his left, Grytdahl sees the two women in the San Diego School District booth, which is adorned with posters of dolphins cavorting and other Pacific scenes. It also has a dish of peppermints. Fresh-faced teachers flock to it.

Grytdahl is alone.

He has no posters.

He offers no ocean.

He has no candy.

Grytdahl's pulse quickens. He spots a teacher wearing a new white lab coat - a freebie for educators who stop for a demonstration at the Discovery Channel's booth. The man is moving down the aisle, chatting with a recruiter from Fairfax, Va., and then a recruiter from Fort Worth, Texas. And one from Tampa, Fla. The man picks up a flier at the San Diego booth.

Clark County is next in line.

Grytdahl stands up, straightens the brochures and rows of neon-colored pencils - the best thing Clark County offers as a freebie.

But Lab Coat Fellow abruptly makes a U-turn and retreats. The Virginia recruiter comes over to gloat. Lab Coat has expressed an interest in moving to Fairfax.

From Las Vegas.

Grytdahl's eyes narrow.

Does Lab Coat's principal know that he's playing hooky to look for another job?

Grytdahl adjusts the knee-highs.

The scene in Anaheim played more than 200 times over the last academic year as Clark Country recruiters crisscrossed the country. They visited college campuses, career fairs and professional conferences, searching for teachers in nearly every state, plus Mexico, Canada and Spain.

The same April week that Grytdahl cast his net in Anaheim, the School District dispatched volunteer recruiters to 15 other states: Arizona, Colorado and Delaware. Idaho and Illinois. Michigan, Mississippi and New York. Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Pennsylvania. Texas and Washington.

The district needs 3,100 new teachers for the 2006-07 academic year. More than half of those would replace teachers who have retired or quit over the past year. The others are needed to fill vacancies created by new schools. For the last five years, the district has opened the equivalent of one new campus every five weeks.

As Grytdahl fished in Anaheim, the district had just 400 applications for those 3,100 jobs, half as many as there had been at the same time last year.

As a result, the district has already delayed for at least a year its plans to reduce class sizes. Long-term substitutes were being lined up to cover classrooms. And on Friday the district unveiled its revamped partnership with the Defense Department Troops to Teachers program, which redirects military personnel to careers as educators.

District officials know they are in dire straits. But there is no money in the budget to hire full-time recruiters. So to fill the teaching ranks, Clark County must make do with the eager - albeit amateur - efforts of volunteer principals and administrators.

Grytdahl enjoys the challenge. He's snagged some of his best teachers this way. One of the perks of volunteering is that he can ask to have a particularly impressive candidate assigned to his school.

"Some principals don't want the veterans, but to me there's nothing better," Grytdahl says. "As long as they still have that sense of excitement, that love of working with the kids and being in the classroom, that's what matters."

Grytdahl radiates enthusiasm, his linebacker's frame and buzz-cut suggest vigor and youth. So what if the hair and goatee are gray. He's only "40 plus 11."

He was going to fly to Anaheim but decided at the last minute to make the four-hour drive. He's done it many times with his wife and two sons.

By driving, he could load his truck with as many boxes of brochures, pamphlets and supplies as he could pry out of the district's human resources office. He remembers that last year he ran out and had to call the district for an emergency shipment.

Grytdahl heads out on a Wednesday in early April, fortified with bottled water and Wheat Thins rationed in 100-calorie bags so that he won't down the whole box by Barstow.

He reaches Anaheim by 4:30 p.m. and goes directly to the convention center, across the street from Disneyland's California Adventure park, to ready his booth. The National Science Teachers Association conference begins the following morning.

Exhibitors - including textbook publishers, scientific supply companies and the recruiting school districts - are all there setting up displays. Grytdahl checks the floor map and finds his spot inside the cavernous hall.

Wait just a second. A booth in the back row? No one would call this prime real estate.

Last year he was smack in the middle of the hall, where there was lots of foot traffic. Then again, last year Clark County was the only school district to send a recruiter.

This year is different. Recruiters are arriving from San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Fort Worth, Tallahassee, Tampa, Palm Beach, Virginia.

And every one of them is here because Grytdahl is here. Las Vegas' voracious demand for teachers and its worldwide recruiting effort are something of a legend. Other districts have scrambled to catch up.

What isn't here, however, are Clark County's assigned table and chairs. Grytdahl, lugging a duffel bag full of salary schedules and fact sheets about Southern Nevada, glances at the booths that other districts have already set up. Each has a table and two chairs. His has none.

He looks around for a convention center employee but finds none. At the end of the row is a bare table and two folded chairs, under the sign for Palm Beach.

He snatches them.

It's not really stealing. If the competition shows up, they'll get the stuff back.

He set ups and goes to the motel for a good night's sleep before the real work starts. He wants to get up early and go for a run - work off some of his nervous energy. Grytdahl hangs up his shirt and blazer for the next day and calls his wife to say to good night.

Thirty years ago Grytdahl was a senior majoring in education at the University of Minnesota in Duluth when a recruiter showed up from Clark County.

Grytdahl knew all about Las Vegas. After all, he watched television private eye Dan Tana cruise the strip in his Thunderbird every week.

Only after accepting a job did Grytdahl pull out an atlas and look up Clark County - and find it in the middle of the desert.

There was no Summerlin back then, no Green Valley. Now everybody knows Las Vegas. Or at least what they've seen on TV - which can hurt more than it helps when it comes to recruiting.

Today, Grytdahl is a veteran administrator, one who has forgone advancement to the district's central office because he can't imagine giving up his daily contact with students.

Even after three decades in the desert he still has traces of his Minnesota upbringing. He's unfailingly polite and often punctuates sentences with, "You betcha."

Grytdahl awakens Friday morning to a problem. He forgot to pack dress socks. He pulls on white athletic socks, then steps into his loafers. It looks awful.

It's 7 a.m. No stores are open. Grytdahl heads to the corner market. No men's socks. But the store does have a pair of Hane's black knee-highs, women's. He briefly considers going sockless.

Blisters or embarrassment?

The knee-highs go on, he grabs his duffel bag of supplies and makes the one-mile walk to the convention center with two hours to spare before the doors open to the public.

Grytdahl watches from his stolen seat as Palm Beach's recruiting team arrives, befuddled by missing table and chairs. A convention organizer is summoned.

I wouldn't have taken the stuff if I'd known they were coming.

Relief. Workers soon deliver a table and chairs. Grytdahl smiles as Palm Beach scrambles to catch up, spreading out color brochures and unpacking posters.

Score one for the lonely gunman in the recruiting wars.

All other booths have at least two people. Los Angeles, Florida and Texas each have four.

Los Angeles Unified School District employs 12 full-time recruiters who work year-round. It needs to hire about the same number of teachers as Clark County, but the vacancies are mostly from turnover. In fact, L.A. - the nation's second-largest school district with more than 800,000 students - has seen a slow but steady decline in enrollment.

Grytdahl knows that many of the students who move from Los Angeles end up in Clark County.

Sure wish L.A. would send some teachers along with the kids.

It's 10 a.m. and Grytdahl sees the San Diego recruiter turning her table into an artful display of inflatable palm trees, beach balls, Mardi Gras bead necklaces.

She adds a 6-foot display as a backdrop - silk-screened photographs of rolling hills, dolphins leaping in frothy ocean waters and the San Diego skyline.

It's a great sign. Grytdahl wants that sign.

We have dolphins. So what if they're in a concrete pond in back of the Mirage?

He grabs his cell phone and calls the HR department in Las Vegas. Maybe they can FedEx a sign, something splashy, something that says Las Vegas. Even a panorama of Red Rock Canyon would work.

"Maybe a couple of showgirls, with those big feather headdresses," he says, only half-kidding. "It would get attention obviously - but we don't want to look ridiculous."

By itself, he knows, the Clark County name doesn't sell.

No go on the sign. HR has bigger problems. One recruiter sent to Michigan has lost his luggage, with all of his recruiting materials. A recruiter in Ohio reported that her credit card isn't working. And a third volunteer in Portland, Ore., needs to come home because a family member is gravely ill.

Grytdahl borrows a highlighter from across the aisle. He writes "Las Vegas" on the "Clark County" sign in bright green, but it's barely visible under the glare of the convention center's industrial lighting.

Next he grabs a mouse pad emblazoned with the district's logo and climbs up on his chair. He paperclips the pad to the bottom of the sign.

Climbing down from the chair he stands back to admire.

Better than nothing.

The exhibit hall's doors swing open and the battle begins. Conventioneers arrive in a steady stream.

"I gotta be on my A game," Grytdahl says, glancing down to adjust his pant cuffs discreetly so they cover the knee-highs.

People stroll by.

"Vegas!" Grytdahl calls out, his voice an upbeat bark. "Ever been there? Great place to work! You betcha!"

He strives for eye contact. It's crucial. Make it and most people will linger, if just to be polite.

His patter is earnest, his handshake firm and his eyes bright. He is enthusiastic and upbeat.

"Vegas! Ever been there? Great place to work! You betcha."

Two young teachers, one from Iowa and another from Kansas, say they could never live in Nevada, they'd miss home too much.

"You don't have to stay forever," Grytdahl coaxes them. "Stay for five and you'll be fully vested in the retirement program. Then you can go back home if you want to. That's what I thought I'd do and that was 30 years ago."

He knows that five years of soaring home prices have cost him the best lure in his tackle box - affordable housing. Teachers, even young teachers, want a place of their own. Isn't that why he came west from Duluth 30 years ago?

But now, with median home prices topping $340,000 in Clark County, even an experienced teacher earning the average salary of $45,000 must struggle to buy a house.

Grytdahl tells teachers that Clark County's salary scale is competitive, the benefits unbeatable. He refers them to a grid chart showing what they would likely earn based on their education and experience.

After a while, he takes a closer look and spots tiny print near the bottom of the page. It turns out starting salaries for new teachers will actually be $33,000 - not $30,000 - thanks to a negotiated agreement with the union allowing rookies to skip the first two steps on the pay scale.

Huh? Why didn't someone from HR mention the change when he picked up his materials?

The good news is that he can now offer teachers an instant $3,000 raise. The bad news is that he has recited the wrong starting salary for hours.

It's after 12. The other recruiters head to lunch in shifts, making sure not to leave their tables unattended. Grytdahl props up a hand-written sign, "Back in 10 minutes." He jogs to the restroom and then bolts for a hotdog.

He had asked the district to send someone else with him. They said they'd try, but it just didn't happen. So every time a prospective recruit stops to talk, he loses out on others walking by.

The feeble array of Clark County freebies isn't attracting anyone. He's got only those neon-colored pencils, CD cases, mouse pads - and a few jar openers made of rubber, which no one wants.

"You need a slot machine," one Florida recruiter suggests.

Do these people really think the schools are inside the casinos?

He says "Vegas!" and the familiar responses chime back: I can't - my mother would kill me, or, I don't gamble, or I'd get into trouble there.

Grytdahl tells them he has been in Las Vegas for three decades and hasn't gotten into trouble yet.

He reassures a teacher from Chula Vista, Calif., that there's plenty to do in Southern Nevada besides gamble. Her 16 years' experience and two master's degrees make her a prime catch.

He can only shake his head when she tells him she just paid $500,000 for a 1,200 square-foot condo back home.

An assistant professor from an Ohio community college picks up a handful of brochures for her students. Clark County scooped up hundreds of Buckeye State teachers several years ago when nearly 1,000 were laid off statewide. Ohio produces more teachers than it has jobs for, the professor explains.

"Send 'em to us!" he laughs.

The professor says she'd love to, if she could convince them to leave Ohio. For some, being that far from family is just too scary.

"Believe me, I understand," Grytdahl says.

San Diego's sign-up sheet has more names than his. Fort Worth's HR director says she's made three job offers already.

Grytdahl talked to a guy from Vermont who seems interested in Las Vegas.

He'll probably come back tomorrow for an interview.

Grytdahl sighs and jingles the coins in his pockets. "It's only 2:30 and I'm already tired of saying the same thing," he says. "I need to come up with a new shtick."

The key, he says, is to walk the line between enthusiastic recruiter and used car salesman.

"Wanna take a test drive?" he jokes.

It's nearly 4 p.m. The recruiters are packing up for the day, stowing glossy brochures and ballpoint pens under the tables. Some are planning to hit the theme parks.

Grytdahl will do that when he returns next week for spring break with his family - and points out the convention center, where his four days of recruiting may have netted the district's next great teacher.

He won't know for sure until the fall, when the vacancies are all filled and the HR department has time to do its annual review.

Tonight, he will buy several pairs of men's socks and miniature chocolate bars for the booth, find an overpriced sports bar in Downtown Disney and watch some basketball. He will then go out on the balcony of his motel room and watch the fireworks exploding over Disneyland, illuminating the crinkled brown outline of the Matterhorn.

But right now he's not going anywhere, at least not until the recruiters at the neighboring booth are out the door. Because there's no way he's leaving before San Diego.

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