The West Contra Costa school board president and the head of the district's teacher's union are questioning the continued use of low-cost teaching interns from the Teach For America program when credentialed teachers can't get jobs, but others say the district cannot afford to let it go.
More than 100 Teach For America interns the district will employ this coming school year take jobs that in many cases could be filled by instructors who have been laid off by the district, or by other credentialed teachers who are looking for work in the current tight job market, said Diane Brown, president of United Teachers of Richmond.
"We have a number of surplus and laid off teachers who still need to be called back," she said. "This is causing division within our ranks."
Participating districts nationwide pay for teacher stipends between $30,000 and $51,000 per year along with health insurance and retirement benefits, generally a considerable savings over hiring an experienced teacher.
West Contra Costa is also spending a total of about $172,000 this year in orientation support and training for its interns.
Teach For America helps some interns with their student loan obligations. In return, participants agree to teach in the school district for two years. Only districts with students from low-income neighborhoods with below average test scores, such as West Contra Costa and Oakland, are eligible.
Board Member Antonio Medrano touted the economic benefit to the district of using Teach For America interns, who cost the district less than experienced teachers, at a time when West Contra Costa continues to face potential staff and program cuts.
"If I find out that if we eliminate Teach For America we have to add 10 students to a class of 35, what am I going to tell the teachers?" he said.
However, Medrano said he favors bringing back laid-off teachers and hiring experienced, credentialed teachers whenever it is feasible economically.
West Contra Costa laid off about 50 teachers this spring before offering new contracts to about 29, Brown said. She was told by district's personnel department that it was only seeking interns in math, science and special education, normally the hardest positions to fill. However, she said there are credentialed teachers available locally to fill those positions.
"We have teachers who have been laid off who teach those subjects," Brown said.
Board President Charles Ramsey agreed with Brown's concerns.
"The teachers bring up a good point," Ramsey said. "Why is there a need for this temporary service? We want teachers for a lifetime."
Teach For America can undermine the careers of people who have already made a commitment to teaching, Ramsey said.
"Part of the reason people don't go into education is you can't make a decent living," he said. "TFA interns are nice people and they're good in spite of the training they get, but you have to have more of a commitment than that. You have to have skin in the game."
School board member Madeline Kronenberg said she thinks the Teach For America model may be outdated in a market where there is a teacher oversupply, rather than a teacher shortage.
"Teach For America was originally started to solve a problem that no longer exists," she said. "We should put our energy into growing our own teachers."
West Contra Costa Superintendent Bruce Harter, who has expressed support for the district's participation in the program, did not return calls seeking comment late last week.
But the issue is expanding beyond the district. The Richmond City Council will consider Tuesday whether to send a letter to Harter "expressing concern over recruitment" and hiring of uncredentialed interns that could serve to undermine the teaching profession.
Richmond saluted about 100 Teach For America interns who will work in the Bay Area this year with a two-day orientation that gave them background about the city's history and culture and participation in community activities.
About 10,000 interns will be employed this year nationwide and about two-thirds of the program's 28,000 alumni have chosen education as a career, either as teachers or administrators, according to the organization's website.
Teach For America says it is the largest employer for graduating seniors at 55 universities nationwide this year, including Yale University and UC Berkeley.