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October 21, 2014

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Plummeting demand for teachers has silver lining

Better-qualified candidates emerge in scaled-back search

The Clark County School District long has had to cast a net across the nation to recruit an army of teachers. Just a few years ago, it was building almost a school a month and struggling to handle a flood of new students.

That was then.

This year, the district plans to hire only 230 or so teachers, a decades-low number. That is a tenth of what it hired only three years ago and only a quarter of what it hired last year, which was the previous record low.

One upside: The teachers are better qualified.

“One of the things that’s very different today is that positions have become very competitive” because of high unemployment, said William Garis, deputy human resources officer at the district. “We feel very good about the quality of the teachers coming in.”

The recession, state budget cuts and a flattening of student enrollment have all curbed hiring.

Moreover, officials in recent years have used the “97 percent rule”:

To avoid overhiring, for every 1,000 students, officials provide teachers to a school as if 30 students didn’t exist.

Emily Aguero, the district’s executive director for licensed personnel, said teacher hiring is largely based on student enrollment, which fluctuates in the run-up to the school year.

As of this week, she said, 234 teachers have been hired and up to 275 may be hired by Aug. 30, when the school year starts.

Still needed: math and science teachers for high schools, and teachers at all grades for the learning-disabled, known as “special needs” students.

Teacher pay ranges from $35,000 to $70,000 a year.

The hires reflect a stunning contraction.

In the boom time of the past two decades, some schools didn’t open on time and had to share rooms in other schools. In the late 1980s, enrollment was 111,000. It is now about 300,000.

For more than a decade, more than 70 schools operated without a summer break, a practice that will end this year because of flattening enrollment. As recently as 2006, to welcome, register and orient the freshman class of teachers, the district needed most of the huge floor of the indoor sports arena at the Cox Pavilion, where the UNLV basketball team practices.

This month, it will need, at best, the far smaller cafeteria at Coronado High School.

Despite the budget and economic pressures, the district has largely avoided teacher layoffs.

About 800 positions over the past several years have been eliminated through attrition, meaning death, migration, promotion and other circumstances led to unfilled jobs.

Still, the school district is huge. There are more than 18,000 teachers. It has 352 elementary, middle and high schools, as well as alternative schools. The budget for the current fiscal year is $2.1 billion. If it were a city, it would be the size of Pittsburgh. The district is the fifth-largest in the country, after Miami-Dade County, which is slightly larger. New York City is the largest, with more than 1 million students. And the district is hard to run.

One measure of its complexity is the makeup of the student body. About 150 countries are represented, or enough to fill most of the seats in the United Nations.

But even more than opening schools, filling them with desks, and turning on the lights, placing a schoolteacher in front of a blackboard is critically important.

A fourth-grade class, for example, has about 25 students under the age of 10, or about two dozen individual life stories.

An instructor teaches them all the subjects in primary education — reading, mathematics, history and science.

“It depends on the moment,” said Aguero, the personnel official and a former principal at Cartwright Elementary School, “but a teacher is someone who could affect a student for the rest of his life.”

The job becomes even more complicated by high school, said Garis, a former principal at Sierra Vista High School. Teaching becomes more specialized, with classes oriented toward specific vocations or for college preparation. Students move from subject to subject, different teacher to different teacher, chemistry to English to advanced-placement classes.

“We’re preparing the student for the next stage of his life,” Garis said. “It’s a huge job.”

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