9 Investigates

‘We’re willing to do whatever it takes’: School district getting creative to fill persistent teacher vacancies

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — More than halfway through the school year, Osceola County Schools still has an average of 60 empty teacher positions. To fill them, the administration is having to get creative.

Channel 9 reporter Michael Lopardi found out the district has paid out thousands of dollars in referrals to help fill the vacancies, and has hired teachers from across the globe.

The district paid its own employees $20,000 over the past two years for referring job candidates who eventually got hired. Each successful referral nets $250.

READ: School leaders consider impact of flex schedules at Osceola County high schools

Chief human resources officer Tammy Otterson said the program works, helping to land 38 teachers.

“It is very fierce, the hiring of quality candidates,” Otterson said.

And the district is going to great lengths to find them, traveling more than two dozen times last year to recruit teachers as far as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“We're looking at other places off the beaten path that maybe other districts aren't going to,” Otterson said.

Even across the ocean.

Osceola County brought in more than 30 foreign teachers from places including the Philippines, Egypt and Ghana starting last year.

“We're willing to do whatever it takes,” Otterson said.

Lopardi asked how their performance compares to their American counterparts.

Otterson said their students’ growth was the same or similar.

READ: Tobacco use in Florida schools doubles; what’s being done to snuff out the trend

Amy Dipri said she was recently offered a teaching job at a local job fair. She said she knows going into it that teaching is a tough job.

“I don't think it is appreciated the way it should be,” she said.

Andrew Spar, vice president of the Florida Education Association teachers union, said he knows the struggle to fill teacher jobs all too well.

“I think any effort we can make to try to get people to come into the profession is great but it's once they get there, what we’re doing to help sustain the profession and that's really the challenge we see,” Spar said.

He said the bonuses and other programs that school districts offer to recruit teachers are not long-term solutions.

The union is calling on Florida lawmakers to boost pay and funding for public education.

READ: Hundreds of Florida teachers rally for change in Tallahassee

This weekend, teachers from all over Florida will gather at Lake Eola Park to send Tallahassee that message. Event organizers expect to draw at least 1,500 people to push for better state funding for public education starting at 1 p.m. Sunday.

But even for newcomers, that may not be enough.

“Until they make teaching more of a desirable career, I think they’re going to keep running into problems,” teaching candidate Dipri said.

Michael Lopardi

Michael Lopardi

Michael Lopardi joined Eyewitness News as a general assignment reporter in April 2015.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.