Maryland attracts teacher candidates

While they anxiously wait to find out if their teaching jobs in northern New Jersey will survive that state's budget cuts, Christopher Bell and his wife are beginning to consider where they might go to find employment.

Maryland is appealing because most of its school systems are not planning to lay off teachers. So Bell is putting in his paperwork to get a teaching certificate here.

It is teachers like Bell who are making schools across the state feel suddenly flush with high-quality job applicants to fill the fewer-than-usual number of vacancies. This is a time, human resource officers say, that they will have their pick of the best and the brightest.

"We are probably getting more applicants than ever before because we are more stable than ever before," said Jean Satterfield, assistant superintendent for certification and accreditation at the State Department of Education.

But the state is unusual. A survey by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two largest teacher unions in the nation, shows that 150,000 education jobs, including many teaching positions, are now threatened.

In California, as many as 26,000 teaching positions could be cut; New York is likely to lose 13,000. New Jersey plans to cut 6,500 teaching jobs by Saturday.

"It is scary. We are having our first child in August," Bell said.

He has nearly five years' experience, a master's degree and certification to be a principal. But he might still have to pack up to move to a more stable work environment, even though he has few connections to the state, among them his love of University of Maryland sports.

Maryland has been insulated by a number of factors, including that it has a large number of government and medical services-related jobs, areas that have not seen major reductions. The state's unemployment rate, 7.7 percent, has been 2 percentage points lower than the nation's.

In addition, the governor and the legislature did not touch kindergarten through 12th-grade public education funding, said Anirban Basu, an economist with the Sage Policy Group and a Baltimore school board member. "The governor and the legislature have worked hard to protect education even as they have cut other programs," he said.

The way in which Maryland funds its schools is far different than other states. About 46 percent of all education dollars spent comes from the state government as a way to ensure that children who live in poverty have the same access to resources as those in wealthier neighborhoods. That formula also protects all districts during times of economic downturn. Smaller districts in townships in New Jersey or Pennsylvania must raise more of their revenue locally to fund a handful of schools.

Maryland schools have not had to cut many teaching positions "because so much of funding in Maryland is done by the state government and because the state revenues have been more stable than most," Basu said.

Even Harford and Prince George's counties, where layoffs had seemed possible, have so far avoided them. Harford said it won't lay off teachers, and Prince George's is hoping that it can reduce staff through attrition.

All the school systems around Baltimore reported that they are hiring this spring.

Baltimore County's job fair attracted so many teachers recently to the Timonium fairgrounds that there was a traffic jam on York Road. About 2,500 job applicants showed up, from about 1,800 in previous years, according to Donald Peccia, who heads Baltimore County's human resources department.

Applicants will be competing for far fewer jobs. Peccia said it appears that retirements will be down this year and the county expects to hire between 600 and 700 new teachers, significantly less than the 900 it usually brings on board each fall. Peccia believes older teachers are holding off on retiring because of the economic downturn and younger teachers are deciding to stay put because of the poor job market.

And at a statewide job fair in downtown Baltimore earlier this spring, applicants stood in line for hours for interviews with some of the larger districts.

"It was just an amazing event. We were inundated," said Florie Bozzella, human resources director in Anne Arundel County public schools. "People waited in line for two hours to talk to us. We had eight recruiters there doing interviews, but their dance cards were filled up in 45 minutes."

Overall, 3,200 teachers registered in advance for the job fair, up from 800 two years ago, according to Satterfield.

They came from all over the country, and many had done their homework and knew what they were looking for, said Bozzella. Anne Arundel is expecting to hire about 500 teachers, down from the 900 it sometimes hires.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore County human resources officers said they expect to have a much deeper pool of candidates to fill open positions. And hopefully, they won't have vacancies in the fall.

Bozzella said some of those she has met at job fairs are unusually well qualified or have a combination of attributes they are seeking, such as a Hispanic man who wants to teach in an elementary school. The county has a growing population of Hispanic children and is seeking Hispanic teachers.

But human resource officers say they may still be lacking in some of the hardest-to-staff areas such as special education, foreign languages or higher-level math and science.

And Basu warns that Maryland may have escaped the worst of the budget problems this year, but he predicts that next year it will be difficult for schools to escape cuts.

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