Hiring educators in Alaska a tightrope walk amid budget uncertainty

Published: Mar. 15, 2019 at 4:54 PM AKDT
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Hundreds of teaching jobs are open around the state, but some school district officials are wary to hire amid budget uncertainty.

More than 45 of Alaska's school districts were on hand at the annual Anchorage Educator Expo, hosted by Alaska Teacher Placement at the Hotel Captain Cook Friday where plenty of hopefuls were in attendance looking for jobs.

But some school officials are hesitant to fill open positions with Gov. Dunleavy's proposed austerity budget lurking in the background.

"If we take a large cut, how many positions will we leave?" wondered Jack Walsh, a former educator and current volunteer for Alaska Teacher Placement. "A lot of work goes on here behind the scenes, talking to people over the next couple of months as that legislative process ends, the budgets are more firmed up, and we have a better sense of what's going to be the reality of our next year."

School administrators were looking for the most qualified and best fit candidates to teach Alaska's students, even hiring some on the spot. Soon-to-be graduate Kelly McDermid came all the way to the educator expo from Illinois and was offered a position in special education.

"It's a job teaching elementary children who have autism," McDermid said. "I'm still learning more about the job, but essentially, I'd start in August and teach for the 2019-2020 school year."

As McDermid contemplates her decision, some school district officials are contemplating whether or not to fill certain positions until they have more certainty about the state budget.

"Sometimes you can't fill them until May or June, but you still have be here in March to meet candidates," said Walsh. "You still have to be here to make sure that you're reaching out the most talented people you can find."

Superintendent of Hoonah City Schools Ralph Watkins says when positions opened up in his district, he had get special permission from the school board to hire those positions, and as he puts it, take a leap of faith.

"In its current iteration, that budget would mean a $506,000 cut to our school district, which is the entirety of our teaching staff," Watkins said. "That essentially would mean Hoonah would lose its school, and that's an unacceptable outcome."

However, Watkins says he and the community remain committed to their students, no matter the outcome.

"Hoonah is a great community, and our municipality is really stepping up and providing additional funding for us, but they're being faced with the same challenges we are with this budget cut," Watkins said. "The lack of shared fish tax, and oil revenues, and all of those things impact us. It's just a mess right now, but Alaska's kids are worth it."

Adding to the uncertainty, by law, all school districts must notify current teachers by May 14 whether they will keep their jobs or be laid off. However, that deadline will probably come and go before the legislature votes on a budget that is still subject to a line-item veto by the governor.