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Teachers find it's a battle for each position

| Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Jamie Lynn Reesh, 35, a laid-off Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher, is starting up an executive errand business from her Lawrenceville home on Wednesday, August 22, 2012.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jamie Lynn Reesh, 35, a laid-off Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher, is starting up an executive errand business from her Lawrenceville home on Wednesday, August 22, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jamie Lynn Reesh is one of the many Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers who were laid off after this past school year. Reesh now is attempting to start up a home-based errand business. She is shown in her Lawrenceville home on Wednesday August 22, 2012.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jamie Lynn Reesh is one of the many Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers who were laid off after this past school year. Reesh now is attempting to start up a home-based errand business. She is shown in her Lawrenceville home on Wednesday August 22, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Ryan Dunmire beat long odds when she landed a job teaching business at Chartiers-Houston School District this summer, more than a year after Steel Valley School District furloughed her and dozens of others.

“There was one position; they told me they had over 1,000 applicants,” said Dunmire, 29, of Bethel Park. “They said they could be picky, they knew people needed jobs.”

Since 2009, districts across the state have cut thousands of classroom positions as they balanced shrinking budgets. For those trying to enter the teaching field, and those trying to stay in, it's a battle for each position.

The Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg estimates that in 2011, public education shed nearly 20,000 positions, based on records it compiled from state and federal labor statistics. The jobs included primary and secondary positions, from teachers to support staff.

State Department of Education figures showed 125,844 full-time teachers in 2010-11, a drop of nearly 4,000 positions from the year before. The department did not have figures for the most recent school year.

“It's about as bad as I've ever seen it,” said Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, which estimates 8,000 teaching jobs were cut statewide in the past year.

When districts hire, it's in small numbers, with high demand. Seneca Valley School District this summer posted 12 open positions — six of them long-term substitutes, and not permanent positions — and got between 1,200 and 1,500 applications, spokeswoman Linda Andreassi said.

Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, noted state law dictates that districts can't lay off simply because of budget issues, but only through eliminating programs or declining enrollment. He blamed the problems on districts' poor spending habits when federal stimulus became available a few years ago.

“Instead of school districts sucking it up, with pay freezes, instead of economizing and finding places to cut, they kept right on giving raises, even hiring. When the stimulus ran out, the state couldn't make it up, and now they're in a world of hurt,” Haulk said.

Between 2009 and 2011, the state received $1.7 billion in federal stimulus money, though the federal government warned school districts not to fund long-term projects, said Timothy Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

“Unfortunately, that money is now gone,” Eller said, “and it left holes in budgets.”

Santicola hears from teachers who don't want to do it anymore.

“Some thought this was a profession for life,” he said.

Teacher Jamie Lynn Reesh, 35, of Lawrenceville left a position in Florida teaching English and started a job teaching seventh-graders in Pittsburgh in November, but got a furlough notice in the spring from Pittsburgh Public Schools.

She holds little hope she'll be recalled.

At the website paeducator.net, an online clearinghouse for teaching jobs in the state, she said she saw only a couple of English teaching jobs advertised the past few months.

After teaching for nearly 12 years, she said she's starting an executive errand service.

“I'll miss the kids ... but I'm not going to find a job in teaching. Maybe it is time to do something else,” Reesh said.

Districts are facing bigger pension and health care costs, Eller said, and added employees when enrollments were dropping.

A White House report last week said that 300,000 education jobs were lost since the official end of the recession in 2009 and that student-to-teacher ratios increased by 4.6 percent from 2008 to 2010 and are on track to grow more.

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures suggest the increase in unemployment among teachers has been dramatic. For elementary and middle school teachers in Pennsylvania, the jobless rate climbed to 5.7 percent last year from 2.9 percent in 2009. Preschool and kindergarten teachers saw the rate jump to 8.7 percent last year from less than 1 percent in 2009, the BLS said.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said the district eliminated more than 400 positions this summer. That encompassed more than 200 professional positions, including teachers, and more than 80 paraprofessionals.

She said as teachers continue to retire, the district is calling some employees back.

A Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Some districts in the region are calling a small number of teachers back as the school year begins.

Gateway teachers on Wednesday agreed to a year of salary concessions totaling more than $300,000, helping the school board reinstate 10 teaching positions.

In New Brighton Area School District, an instructional aid position that pays about $8.50 an hour is drawing interest from a considerable number of recently laid-off teachers and teaching-certified college graduates, Superintendent David Pietro said.

“They'll take that job just to get their foot in the door and just so they can show us what they can do and how they work,” Pietro said.

Doreen Smith, secretary to the superintendent of the Frazier School District in Fayette County, said the district advertised four positions only on its website and got more than 100 applicants.

“People get out of school and they automatically send us their resumes,” Smith said.

Lisa Erb, 23, of Pittsburgh lost her job teaching English and special education in July after one year at the Academy Charter School in Baldwin and hasn't found another position. She said she hopes to substitute-teach in the fall to make ends meet.

“There's lots of frustration,” said Erb, a 2011 Carlow University graduate. “I want to get into a school district to build a career, and there aren't any jobs.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com. Adam Wagner is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7956 or adamwagner@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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