The school board meeting room was packed with concerned citizens, mostly teachers, worried about the district hiring teachers from a foreign exchange. PHOTO BY WILLIAM SNOWDEN


There was standing-room only as a crowd of citizens, most of them classroom teachers, piled into the school board meeting room last week concerned about a proposal to use a foreign exchange company to try to bring in teachers to help fill vacant jobs. Wakulla currently has a shortage of 28 teachers.

At the school board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17, the agenda included consideration of a contract with TPG – an Orlando-based company that vets and coordinates cultural exchanges for teachers.

Six citizens – most of them teachers – spoke out against the proposed contract. Many of the objections they raised were disputed by district staff – such as that there was a higher cost associated with bringing in an exchange teacher, or that they wouldn’t have a Florida teaching certificate or wouldn’t be able to speak English. District staff, especially CFO Randy Beach and HR Director Lori Sandgren, refuted those concerns noting that the district has budgeted for those 28 vacant teaching positions and since the the district wouldn’t have to pay certain costs such as retirement and Social Security, it would actually save a small amount of money – some $5,300. The teachers would be certificated and vetted by TPG and potential candidates would be interviewed by principals.

And Sandgren stressed it would be a win if the district could hire two of the exchange teachers to fill the empty jobs. She reiterated numerous times that it was just “a tool in the toolbox” – not a fix for the problem. It’s something several other districts around the state and the panhandle have tried.

Superintendent Bobby Pearce noted repeatedly that teacher shortage is a national issue, not just local. “We’re not going to fill all 28 slots with exchange teachers,” Pearce told the board. “But if we can one or two math teachers for Wakulla High School, that’d be great.”

School Board member Josh Brown made a motion to enter into a contract, but it died for lack of a second. While School Board Chair Melisa Taylor asked questions and made comments that made it appear she also supported the proposal, she could have only seconded the motion if she had passed the gavel to the vice chair.

New School Board Member Laura Lawhon noted that low pay and high insurance premiums are a reason for the teacher shortage. She insisted there were other, perhaps better, “tools in the toolbox,” such as encouraging local high school students to go into teaching, or helping defray costs for parapros to earn their teaching certificate.

Pearce countered that those proposals, while good, would take years to put teachers in the classroom and the district needed teachers now. Lawhon put a fine point on the issue when, to applause from the teachers in the audience, said that “Competitive salary and competitive benefits is all our teachers are asking for.”

She added that it wasn’t just the money, but the teacher exchange program represents to local educators – that they are replaceable, which drew more applause. Taylor dispusted the comments, noting that the district has given pay raises every year for the past five years and has still lost teachers every year. Lawhon answered: “Because insurance costs have gone up.”

There was a lot of discussion of coming up with some sort of underwriting for the district’s insurance costs. It was noted that insurance for a single person was about $600 a month, but for a family the cost was $1,200. That prompted a lot of back-and-forth that, of some 200 teachers, only 80 take the family insurance. There was some back and forth on other issues as well: Lawhon noted that, while district staff kept saying they want to take care of who we have here, “We are currently ranked number 53 out of 67 in teacher pay. Only 14 counties pay less,” she said.

Brown and Taylor answered back that Walton County, a well-off district, is the only district that contributes more to insurance cost for employees. And CFO Beach noted that Wakulla is ranked 62 out of 67 counties in state funding. Prior to Brown’s motion, School Board Member Cale Langston thanked district staff for their work on the idea, calling it creative and “thinking outside the box.” The only question asked by freshman School Board Member Eddie Hand was whether the foreign teachers would be fluent in English. Pearce noted that one parent called him and said she didn’t want a foreigner teaching her students.

When the motion failed, the room erupted in applause.

After the meeting, Pearce commented that it was “a missed opportunity” to do the right thing for students.