Prince George's County schools will have to hire hundreds of uncertified teachers to fill 1,400 vacancies by mid-August, according to the personnel chief, who said it will be several years before the number of provisionally qualified teachers declines significantly.
Horatio Wilkinson, hired by the system eight months ago to lead the recruitment effort for Maryland's largest school district, says he does not expect his office can improve on its efforts from last year, when more than 600 of the 1,500 teachers it hired were uncertified.
"We try to do the best we can to find as many certified teachers as we can," Wilkinson said. "But I'm not anticipating that number will be significantly higher than it was last year."
Aside from selecting a new schools chief to succeed Superintendent Jerome Clark, who retires June 30, the most critical issue facing the system is its shortage of certified teachers, school officials say.
About 18 percent of the county's 8,000 teachers are uncertified, the highest percentage in the state.
Clark recently asked county government and business leaders to bolster the system's recruiting efforts by attending job fairs, promoting the county as an attractive place to work and live, and creating incentive packages (such as reduced rents) for new teachers, school officials say.
School Board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) said the system enlisted county leaders in a similar effort during a teacher shortage in the early 1980s.
"It's the idea that not just the school board wants you in Prince George's but that the entire county government is committed to this place and working things out," Thornton said.
Yet during the past two weeks, the school system's recruiting efforts suffered two setbacks: County leaders failed to fund fully a $42 million teacher salary increase package, coming up $17 million short; and Wilkinson submitted his resignation, citing personal reasons.
Although Clark persuaded Wilkinson to stay at least through the end of the recruiting period in mid-August, several school officials have questioned Wilkinson's ability to lead the 66-member personnel office during the peak of the hiring season.
School board member Robert J. Callahan (Bowie) said he believes the personnel office, which was called bloated and ineffective in an independent audit of the system last year, has not improved under Wilkinson's direction.
When told that Wilkinson did not expect to improve the record of hiring certified teachers, Callahan said: "I think that is expected based on the chaos that the human resources department was in and I believe is still in. I'm hearing from applicants that have not been responded to. They're going to go somewhere else. If we do not have an effective process in place, what can we expect?"
Wilkinson said such criticism is unfair. He declined to elaborate on why he submitted his resignation, saying only: "I was committed to this job when I took it, and I'm committed to it now."
Wilkinson said he has developed a plan that includes restructuring the personnel division, speeding up contract offers to teacher candidates, pushing uncertified teachers toward fast-track certification and developing partnerships with colleges and high schools to attract future teachers.
But the plan will take several years to produce results, and the system is hampered by lower pay than neighboring counties and a public perception that working conditions are deteriorating, he said.
"Not one of those board members knows what recruiting is. They've never done it," Wilkinson said. "We are where we're supposed to be. This is the way the process is, but it gets like this every year where people start to wonder and worry and panic. We haven't finished recruiting."
Wilkinson and his staff also must hire at least 15 principals and hundreds of bus drivers, secretaries, custodians and mid-level administrators.
All told, Wilkinson estimates that his office will need to fill up to 5,000 jobs for next school year.
But the job market is as competitive as ever, with counties across the state, as well as the District and Northern Virginia, vying for many of the same candidates, Wilkinson said.
His staff has visited 70 colleges and a handful of job fairs, contacting 4,500 teaching candidates. About 2,500 of those have submitted applications, which the system has begun screening. So far, about 500 contracts have been offered and 200 have been accepted.
By comparison, Montgomery County school officials say they have hired 641 teachers and are waiting to hire an additional 300 once they determine the need.
Wilkinson said his office plans 10 additional recruiting trips to cities such as Chicago, and a local job fair is planned for June 19.
He plans to reorganize his recruiters into teams with support staff to streamline the application process.
Additionally, several staff members have enrolled in a state-run course on how to speed up the often time-consuming background checks and other paperwork that must be processed for each candidate. The current system takes so long that by the time the county gets back to a candidate, he or she often has accepted a different offer.
Meanwhile, the system has launched a "resident teacher" program, in which uncertified teachers are put on a county-funded, accelerated program to earn certification. About 25 to 50 teachers will be among the first in the program this fall, but eventually it will turn out 200 certified teachers a year, Wilkinson said.
"If I can implement everything I want to, we still won't see a blip [in getting more certified teachers] next year, but we'll get the ones we want faster and first," he said.
Wilkinson said that if officials remain committed to recruiting, results eventually will improve. "We hope to meet the challenges. It will not be easy, but I and my staff intend to work around the clock to meet them."