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Schools staff grows, but retirements loom

January 29, 2001

Schools staff grows, but retirements loom

By TARA REILLY / Staff Writer


Washington County Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett has created 85 new positions over the last three years, 55 of which were teachers hired to reduce class size in elementary schools.

"I'm very, very proud of that," said Bartlett, who began working for the school system in 1997. "We're continuing to make progress."

The 85 new positions, which were paid through the School Board's operating budget, came during the beginning stages of an anticipated decline in overall student enrollment.

At the same time, 198 teachers are eligible to retire with full benefits, while 416 will be eligible to retire with full benefits over the next few years. Those 416 can retire now, but they will not receive full benefits, according to Phil Ray, the School Board's director of human resources.

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Bartlett said the school system has reached its goal to reduce class size in elementary schools to an average of 20.1 students per teacher, down from 20.6 per teacher last year. School Board member Doris Nipps said a few years ago elementary class size was about 23 students per teacher.

With smaller classes, students receive more of a one-on-one education, she said.

"I just believe that bringing these class sizes down makes a difference," Nipps said. "Look at the school system over the last couple of years ... test grades have gone up."

Sharon Chirgott, president of the Washington County Teachers Association, also said the average reduction of about three students per class is beneficial to learning.

"It's a phenomenal difference," she said. "You can focus more on individual children's needs."

She also said smaller classes benefit specialized instruction, such as guided reading groups for children.

"The smaller the groups are, the more productive they can be," Chirgott said.

The other positions created include 10 school-based administrators, such as assistant principals and administrative interns; five school secretaries, seven special education instructional assistants and two central office positions.

An administrative intern is a teacher who works with a school principal for a year to gain administrative experience, Ray said. Once the year is up, that teacher has the chance of being promoted to a principal.

At the central office, the director of technology position was created at $83,056 a year, along with a secretary at $32,303 a year. According to the board's Strategic Plan, the director of technology oversees all technology resources being used in the school system.

Bartlett and Nipps also said the enrollment drop has had a slight effect on the reduction of class size, but it's not the main factor. They said that's because the enrollment decline was spread throughout the entire school system, not just in elementary classes.

According to the Maryland State Data Center, about 19,625 students were enrolled in the 1998-99 school year. In 1999-2000, the number dropped to 19,422. The center is predicting enrollment will be down to 18,934 by September 2008.

Bartlett said the school system will begin looking at how it can reduce class size on the middle and high school levels. Last year, the average class size in the middle and high schools was about 23 students per teacher.

But while the school system says it's good news that class size is decreasing, its biggest problem over the next few years could be finding replacement teachers for the more than 600 eligible to retire. This comes at a time of a statewide teacher shortage, school officials say.

There are about 1,400 teachers in the school system.

School officials think it's likely that a large number of teachers will retire in 2002, when the two-year Governor's Challenge grant program runs out.

"Are they going to start retiring in droves? It wouldn't surprise me," Chirgott said.

With the challenge grant, if local jurisdictions provide teachers with at least a 4 percent raise, the state will add an additional 1 percent. The 10 percent raise over a two-year period will increase the amount of a teacher's pension, Ray and Chirgott said.

"I think a lot of teachers are remaining in the classroom so they can round up their pension benefit," Ray said. "When we end this challenge period, it's entirely possible we could have a couple of hundred teachers say ... 'I may as well leave now.'"

If that happens, the board could be hard-pressed to find replacements.

"I think it's going to be nearly impossible," Chirgott said.

Colleges in the state aren't producing enough teachers, and Chirgott thinks it's time that the school system looks to its high school students to spark an interest in teaching.

Of the 22 Maryland colleges that offer teacher-education programs, 2,550 teacher candidates graduated last year, a 4 percent decrease from the 1998-99 school year, according to the Maryland Department of Education. Only 1,585 became teachers in Maryland schools.

For the 2001-02 school year, the state projects that 10,350 teachers must be hired to start the year, more than double the 4,588 teachers needed five years ago.

"We really have to actively look in the high schools to start recruiting teachers," Chirgott said.

Ray said in the spring the school system will "aggressively" begin recruiting at schools and job fairs in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. He hopes it can expand its search into New York as well.

"We're trying to figure out how to do that on a shoe-string budget," he said. "We're still in very difficult shape."

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