According to Michelle Roberge, volunteer coordinator for Pinellas County schools, volunteers are the “heart and soul” of a good school. They provide many useful services like chaperoning on field trips and helping kids with homework. Unfortunately, in Pinellas County fewer and fewer parents and community members have been stepping up to volunteer at local schools. Officials are left wondering why that is and what to do about it.
The number of volunteers dropped nearly 23 percent over the past few years in Pinellas County, and the number of hours that the volunteers worked dropped around 28 percent. With the value of a volunteer’s time set at $18.85 according to 2011 research, Pinellas’ decline in volunteer participation translates into a loss equivalent to about $5.5 million since the 2010-2011 school year.
One possible reason behind the declining volunteer rates could be declining student enrollment. This sounds good in theory—fewer kids enrolled means fewer parents or other family members available to volunteer. However, enrollment has not decreased as much as volunteer rates have, so there must be some other factor at play.
Officials also point to the weak economy of the past few years as a possible cause for declining volunteer rates. Many people can no longer afford to take time off from work in order to volunteer, and they may not have the cash to spend on gas for commuting to the schools either. However, neighboring Hillsborough County has faced the same economic challenges but grown their volunteer rates by 29 percent since 2010-2011.
Another possibility is that the numbers may be skewed because the county relies on volunteers to self-report their own hours using a new online computer system. Officials suspect that the new system may have confused some volunteers and discouraged them from reporting their hours. Other volunteers may view reporting their hours as boastful and underestimate their time spent at school. This would explain the decline in hours worked, but not the decline in actual volunteers.
A big part of the reason that volunteer numbers have dropped could be Pinellas County schools’ volunteer background check policy. Many schools, child cares, camps, and other organizations use background checks such as US OneSEARCH from backgroundchecks.com on employees and volunteers alike in order to keep kids safe from known predators. US OneSEARCH compares an individual’s name and date of birth against a collection of over 450 million public criminal records taken from state and local databases across the nation. It also includes a search of Offender Registries.
Starting in 2012, Pinellas County began enforcing their volunteer background check policy more strictly. According to School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook, a misperception in the local community regarding the new enforcement measures may have contributed to a decline in volunteers. Many community members mistakenly believed that all volunteers would be subjected to a rigorous fingerprint-based background check from the FBI. However, in reality this check is only required for volunteers who will drive school vehicles or spend one-on-one time with kids. Other volunteers undergo a much simpler process. Cook also mentioned that the $50 fee for the background check might pose a problem for some low-income volunteers.
Ultimately, the decline in volunteerism in Pinellas County is probably not due to any one single factor, but to a combination of factors. Officials can try to combat the decline by spreading the word about the situation and making sure community members know that they can get financial aid to cover the cost of background checks. Counties should also be aware that background check providers like backgroundchecks.com provide much more affordable solutions for national checks, compared to the $50 charge they now face for the FBI check.
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Author: Michael Klazema
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments