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Funding cuts shuffle Lee teachers

By Staff | Oct 11, 2008

Despite budget reductions where hundreds of staff positions were eliminated, most employees of the Lee County School District had a job waiting for them at the start of this school year, just not exactly the jobs they expected.

During the first week of school, Leisha Roy — recognized last month by the Lee County School Board for winning the 2008 Florida Health Teacher of the Year — said she was surprised when administrators at Gulf Middle told her to cover three Social Studies classes instead of teaching health all day.

At that time schools across the district were cutting positions because of lower student enrollment — down 3,100 students, according to the 10-day count.

These teachers weren’t fired. Instead, they were shuffled around to schools where student enrollment bolstered job openings. And, as a result, schools had to write up brand new schedules one month into the school year.

“After we lost teachers, our master schedule was redone and I now teach health full-time,” said Roy.

Beneath the surface is a tangled web of polices and negotiations involving the school district and local unions such as the Teachers Association and Support Personnel Association of Lee County demanding that veteran or tenured teachers get the first available positions and new recruits grab those left over.

When hundreds of staff positions were eliminated and dozens of teachers put on the “surplus” list, the next step was to go through each school’s enrollment and find out where teachers needed to be added or taken out. Once openings were identified, it was a matter of offering them to those teachers on “surplus.”

And, like Roy, some teachers were asked to instruct in different subjects.

Roy said she devoted part of her summer to taking tests that would certify her in other subjects. In Florida an educator can take certification tests in math, English, social studies, science or in a specialized curriculum. If they pass they are qualified to teach that subject.

And she’s not alone. Many teachers frantically took certification tests to ensure that they had a job waiting for them on Aug. 18. For many teachers, it would be better to teach out-of-field rather than be unemployed.

The Florida Department of Education reported that the Lee County School District had only 3.2 percent of staff teaching out-of-field in 2006-2007. This was exemplary compared to other districts who had up to 20 or 30 percent of their staff teaching out-of-field. It’s unclear if the percent of out-of-field teachers will change as a result of the budget reductions.

Students in Aaron Smoly’s journalism class at Cape Coral High School were concerned this spring that the school newspaper, The Seahawk’s Eye, would be discontinued if Smoly was cut.

Later, the district told him there was a position waiting and now he is teaching five different classes in three subject areas.

“Only reason I do that is because I am qualified to do all of these subjects,” he said. “I tried to get certified in two more because I was worried about my job but it didn’t work out.”

Smoly explained that what he’s doing at Cape Coral High is a rarity and that the district is reluctant to have a lot of staff members who teach a couple of different classes. Also, he said that The Seahawk’s Eye is still printed and the school just unveiled an online edition of the paper.

Some employees are also concerned with how new teachers are receiving open-ended contracts, meaning that they won’t receive health benefits. Furthermore, part-time support personnel who work in the cafeteria, for example, don’t receive benefits.

Officials from the Lee Memorial Health System reported that the uninsured population in Lee County increased by 8 percent. There is also a 23 percent increase in the number of people who are insured but still can’t pay out-of-pocket. The increase of the uninsured population has coincided with the unemployment rate — now at 9 percent in Lee County — because most people receive their health insurance through an employer.

Patty Yeugelowitz, a food service employee in the Lee County School District, said that her schedule of seven hours was cut to four and as a result she lost her benefits.

“I have no benefits. I am feeling the pain in my pocket book and struggling to make ends meet,” she said. “But I still show up every day to serve the kids. I truly have a desire to serve the children and do my job.”

From Oct. 13-17 is FTE or full time equivalent week where the state takes a final count of student enrollment and uses that number to decide how much funding the school district will receive. Additional cuts could come before the school board if the enrollment numbers are lower than expected, so the district is asking all students to attend next week.