TAURAGE, Lithuania | As a secondary school teacher, Lina Baltiene used to earn almost $800 a month, the average national wage, and she received another $100 to cover bus fare for the 30-kilometer (19-mile) ride to her school in the countryside.
What a difference a few years makes.
Now working part time, she‘s lucky if she makes one-third of her old salary. Gone is the perk of bus fare, though she still has to make the same daily trek, without a car of her own.
In some ways, Baltiene is a symbol of a shakeup in Lithuanian education spurred by the financial crisis and dramatically shifting demographics.
As in many countries, local governments in Lithuania used to offer incentives to teachers to work in rural communities. Those who commuted were reimbursed for transportation expenses; those who moved close to their schools received more generous benefits.
“The process of the primary and secondary school reorganization that the country is carrying out now is inevitable,” Steponavicius said. With the budget cuts, older, more experienced teachers are the most likely to be laid off, he added – it is cheaper to pay their pensions than their salaries.
“I’ve always liked my job and children. And the teachers’ benefits, like reimbursed bus fare, were a good incentive. Today I have no benefits and very few choices,” said Baltiene, who is 58.
Now she catches a ride with other teachers who live near her, when there is space in the car. If not, she calls a grown son or her husband at work and asks for a lift to school. Even if she wanted to pay for a bus ride, most lines to her school’s village have been canceled as the population decreases.
Baltiene’s situation is precarious for other reasons as well; two years ago, when the travel reimbursement was canceled, she left behind her rural school and the 60-kilometer round trip to look for a job in Taurage, the southwestern city where she lives. When nothing materialized, she was rehired by the Adakavas Secondary School, but at fewer hours and without the chance to work on extracurricular activities that earned her more money.
Now her colleagues tease her about being the “returnee,” but it bites. She has lost money and seniority, at a time when even more senior teachers are being laid off.
NO ONE LEFT TO TEACH
Lithuania’s rural schools are emptying out because the birth rate fell steadily after the fall of the Soviet Union and because families have decamped to other EU countries in search of work.
Though emigration figures are notoriously under-reported, the country’s statistics agency records a nearly four-fold increase in the number of people who left Lithuania in 2010 – 83,157, compared with 21,970 the year before.
And although it has picked up since, the country’s birth rate fell by 23 percent from 1994 to 2005, roughly the period when today’s schoolchildren were being born.
The combined effect has been stark: provisional census results show that the country has lost 430,000 people, or about 13 percent of its population, since 2001.
“The birth rate has dropped dramatically in the country in the last decade, especially in the countryside, from which residents have left in large numbers for the towns or emigrated,” said the Education Ministry’s Barauskiene. As a result, she said, many rural schools have been closed down.
The Taurage district saw one of the steepest population declines in the country, losing 18 percent of its residents over the past decade. Last year 400 babies were born in the district, compared with 1,000 in 2002, said Birute Joskiene, a member of the local council. The area has lost roughly 400 schoolchildren each year since 2008 and has closed seven of its 20 schools since 2009.
In the neighboring Silale district, the Upyna Secondary School has lost 350 pupils over five years and fired seven teachers. Only a few years ago, principal Uzumeckas said it was nearly impossible to attract teachers from Silale, a city 17 kilometers away.
“Not now. Of our 33 teachers, 25 come from Silale every day. And certainly no one offers them any compensation. We’ve laid off most of our teachers of retirement age to give jobs to the teachers from Silale,” Uzumeckas said.
Of the 18 teachers at the Adakavas Secondary School in the Taurage district, where Baltiene works, only eight are locals.
Steponavicius, the education minister, said Vilnius had encouraged local governments to preserve the travel reimbursement, but none did.
The director of Taurage’s education department, Egidijus Steimantas, said the benefit cost the municipality $9,950 in 2008-2009 and $16,000 the following school year.
The principal of Baltiene’s school, Romualdas Levanauskas, said schools with fewer than 80 students are being closed or merged with others. His own school, he said, is “on the brink” – its student population has slid from 115 in 2008 to 80 this year – although its low per-pupil cost may save it.
For now, at least. “In the longer run,” Levanauskas predicted, “all rural schools, like the countryside itself, will die out.”