Human Resources

Colorado’s rural schools need teachers and want lawmakers to help

PHOTO: Kathryn Allison
Chelsea Wendorf, who visited La Veta as part of the rural teacher immersion program, helps in a third grade classroom.

Bree Lesser, superintendent of the 209-student La Veta school district in southern Colorado, has been on the hunt for a high school math teacher for the last 18 months, and had no luck. Now she’s turning to the state legislature for help.

Lawmakers are considering three bills that supporters believe could help schools — especially those in rural areas like La Veta — combat a teacher shortage that is only expected to get worse.

“We can’t get people,” Kevin Shott, superintendent of the 200-student Deer Trail School District in eastern Colorado, told a legislative committee this week.

The problem is not in rural districts alone. Superintendents across the state have raised concern about a dearth of qualified applicants and possible contributing factors such as poor pay and skyrocketing housing costs.

“Some schools are waiting five years for someone to apply for a position,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and former teacher who is sponsoring two bills to address the teacher shortage. “It’s horrible what’s happening around Colorado. And I don’t know why that is, but we need to take a look.”

McLachlan’s first bill, House Bill 1003, would commission the state’s education and higher education departments to work with the broader education community to develop a plan to tackle the shortage.

The shortage begins at Colorado’s traditional teacher prep programs, which are seeing fewer students enroll and complete the required training to become a licensed educator. While there has been an uptick in people completing alternative programs, it’s not enough. Compounding the problem: Colorado’s teacher workforce isn’t getting any younger. An estimated 5,500 Colorado teachers will retire this year.

The legislation calls for the departments to pinpoint the greatest needs and obstacles to hiring.

“I assume it’s money, but money isn’t always the fix in education,” McLachlan said, suggesting housing and an increasing workload could be other factors. “So let’s see what else there is.”

The departments also must identify why teachers are leaving the profession — many after just a few years in the classroom — and consider policy solutions to end that trend.

Also up for consideration are the state’s licensing policies — a topic that has vexed lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper for years.

“We need to take off our Democratic or Republican hats and ask what’s best for kids,” McLachlan said. “Let’s give up on some of the things that we know are going wrong.”

The issue of teacher licensure already is on the table at the Capitol.

The House Education Committee is expected to take up the issue Monday when it considers Rep. Jim Wilson’s House Bill 1178.

The Salida Republican’s bill would allow rural school districts to hire unlicensed teachers — with some conditions — if they can’t fill positions with licensed teachers.

“In rural districts, we know the people,” said Wilson, a former school superintendent. “If we have a community member that has a degree, they’re great with people, great with kids (and) they’ve served the community well,” they should be allowed to teach.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, fiercely opposes the bill.

“We believe students, no matter where they live, should have access to qualified teachers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the union’s vice president. “We’re very concerned that if we allow somebody to be in the classroom without a license, that wouldn’t be a good thing for students.”

For the union, a license signals a teacher has not only mastered a content area, but also other skills such as lesson planning, designing tests and classroom management.

The union argues that avenues already exist to hire teachers who have not attended a traditional teacher prep program, including hiring people with adjunct or emergency licenses.

An adjunct license, which lasts three years, allows a person to teach special subject matter such as advanced economics. An emergency license may be granted for one-year to any person who has a bachelor’s degree and is enrolled in but has not completed a teacher prep program.

Advocates for reforming the state’s licensing program argue there are too many bureaucratic hurdles and costs discouraging potential teachers.

The union is supporting a different bill it believes could provide rural schools more options in hiring.

House Bill 1176 would allow rural school districts to hire an unlimited number of retired teachers who would be able to collect their entire pension for the year.

Under current law, retired teachers who re-enter the classroom must forfeit a portion of their pension if they work more than 110 days. In limited cases, the restrictions kick in at 140 days. This law, which applies to everyone enrolled in the state’s pension program, is meant to restrict collecting a paycheck and pension at the same time. The typical working school year is 180 days, which means retired teachers who go back to the classroom could lose up to several months of their pension.

Lesser, the La Veta superintendent, told the House Finance Committee this week that nearly one-third of her staff are teachers who have come out of retirement, but none work full time because of the restrictions.

“It’s been a challenge for us to make sure there are people in the classroom who know what they’re doing,” she said as she described how she rotates substitute teachers and comes up with other workarounds. “This bill does solve problems for us.”

Officials from the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, have raised concerns about that the bill. They believe the bill could add an additional $85 million in unfunded liabilities to the program.

That’s a tiny number compared to the billions that are already unfunded. But the organization noted lawmakers are often critical of the pension program liabilities.

An independent legislative analysis suggests PERA’s liabilities would not increase substantially because fewer individuals would take advantage of the new flexibility.

“It’s a stopgap measure,” said McLauchlan, who is sponsoring House Bill 1176 with Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican. “But for some districts, that’s exactly what they need.”

The perennial debate

How the heck does Colorado fund its schools? (And six other money questions you might be embarrassed to ask.)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A high school student at Vista Peak Preparatory works on a computer during an engineering class.

Since public schools were founded, arguments have raged over how to pay for them.

In Colorado, it’s one of the perennial debates that gets the best of lawmakers, lobbyists, school leaders and advocates every year. Further frustrating things, lawmakers can only do so much because constitutional amendments lock in much of the state’s budget.

It’s no chump change: More than $6 billion in Colorado tax money goes toward schools.

As Colorado lawmakers get to work on crafting the state budget, here are some questions and answers about how the school funding system works in the Centennial state.

How the heck does Colorado fund its schools?

Colorado funds its schools from two major sources of revenue.

The first pool of revenue is called the “local share.” This money comes from local property taxes on homes and businesses. The second pool is the “state share.” This revenue comes from income and sales taxes.

PHOTO: Sarah Glen
Over time, the state has had to increase its contribution to the state’s schools.

Historically, schools received about an equal share of their funding from the local and state shares. However, for a variety of reasons, the state has had to dramatically increase its contribution to schools during the last two decades.

Many schools, especially those that serve large populations of at-risk students, also receive federal money.

What about marijuana taxes? Aren’t schools seeing a windfall from recreational sales?

No.

The first $40 million of tax revenue collected from marijuana excise taxes — a wholesale tax — goes to a special fund to help school construction. That doesn’t go very far.

However, given a tightening state budget, Gov. John Hickenlooper has suggested increasing taxes on pot to help fund school operations. Lawmakers haven’t been keen on that idea.

Does every school district get the same amount from the state?

No. Lawmakers use a funding formula to determine how much money each school district gets. The formula, which was written in 1994, takes in a variety of factors including student enrollment, the district’s cost of living and how many at-risk students the district serves.

The large suburban district in Douglas County received $7,050 per student this year. Thirty-four percent came from local taxes, while the state picked up 66 percent of the cost.

The smaller Mapleton school district in Adams County, which serves a large Latino population, got $7,303 per student. But only 24 percent came from local property taxes, while the state kicked in 76 percent of the cost.

The tiny Aguilar school district in southeastern Colorado received $13,600 per student. The locals pitched in 25 percent and the state took care of the rest.

What determines the size of the local share?

School boards have no say in how much local property taxes contribute to their funding. That’s left to a complicated constellation of constitutional amendments and state law.

First there’s the Gallagher Amendment. Adopted in 1982, the amendment requires the state to maintain a 45 percent to 55 percent ratio ratio between the revenue collected from personal property and business property. When home values go up, the state is required to drop the percent on which property can be taxed. In 1980, the rate was 21 percent. In 2013, it was 7.98 percent. That means a smaller proportion of a home’s actual value can be taxed by school districts.

The second constitutional amendment in play is the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Approved by voters in 1992, TABOR puts a cap on how much revenue the state and local governments can collect from taxpayers. It also requires governing bodies to seek permission from voters before increasing taxes.

While all but four school districts have received voter approval to keep excess tax revenue, lawmakers have put two key restrictions on school districts.

First, school district property taxes can only increase by inflation and enrollment growth. When that revenue exceeds the limit, school districts must reduce their tax rates. And because of TABOR, once the tax rate is lowered by statute, it can’t be raised without voter approval.

(If you want to sound super-smart at your next PTA or school board meeting, this is known as the “ratchet effect.”)

Lawmakers put an additional check on school districts in 2007 when they put a statewide cap on school districts’ tax rates.

What determines how much the state is supposed to kick in?

While there are two amendments that put restrictions on how the state can generate revenue to fund its schools, there is another Constitutional amendment that spells out how the state is supposed to spend that money.

Amendment 23, approved by voters in 2000, did a few things, but two points are still relevant today.

First, Amendment 23 requires the state to increase funding based on population growth and inflation. Second, it created the State Education Fund, an account lawmakers are relying on more heavily to pay for schools. It is financed by one-third of 1 percent of federal taxable income that is exempt from TABOR limits.

Wait, if lawmakers are required to increase funding each year, why does the state have an education funding shortfall?

During the Great Recession, when lawmakers were forced to slash hundreds of millions from the state budget, they argued that Amendment 23 only covers “base funding,” or the average every school district receives per pupil.

The amendment, they argued, doesn’t govern the additional money districts receive to compensate for size, at-risk students and other factors.

So in 2010, lawmakers created “the negative factor,” a new tool they could use to make across- the-board cuts to school funding after all other factors (size, at-risk students, cost-of-living) are taken into consideration.

As part of a compromise, lawmakers are required to report how much money they’re not giving to schools based on that legislative tool.

A lawsuit challenged the negative factor. But the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of lawmakers.

So while a large portion of funding must increase every year, lawmakers have places to cut education in a pinch. The current shortfall is at $828 million, down from a $1.01 billion in 2013.

Didn’t a bunch of school districts just pass tax increases?

Yes, and according to some, that’s making the situation worse.

As the state’s finances have squeezed, some school districts have turned to local voters to ask for more local revenue. These tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, exist outside of the state’s school funding system. The more voters approve doesn’t lessen the state’s burden.

There are some school districts like Boulder, Denver and Cherry Creek that have generated millions of local revenue but are still getting their equal share from the state. Meanwhile, districts like Greeley, Pueblo and Sheridan have never been able to convince their voters to approve a tax increase. That means they have to get by with whatever the state gives them.

Not ready for prime time

Lawmaker kills bill that would have allowed unlicensed teachers in rural Colorado classrooms

A bill that would have allowed understaffed rural Colorado school districts to hire unlicensed teachers was spiked by its sponsor after he was unable to find enough support.

“I’ve gotten a lot of flack over it, and it’s not ready for prime time,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican. “If your troops are still arguing, I’m not dumb enough to lead the charge.”

Along with providing flexibility on hiring unlicensed teachers, House Bill 1178 would have created a process for rural schools to receive waivers from state law.

The State Board of Education, which is responsible for granting waivers, and the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, criticized the bill.

The union is a stalwart defender of the state’s licensure policies and objects to allowing unlicensed teachers in the classroom.

Wilson took a shot at the objections.

“My question is: Who is going to be concerned between unlicensed educators versus no educators?” he said. “There’s no easy simple solution to going out and finding (licensed teachers). They’re not there. I’ve never seen this kind of crisis — ever.”

State lawmakers are considering two other bills to address the shortage of teachers, which is concentrated in certain geographic areas and subjects.

On Monday, the House Education Committee on a party-line vote approved a bill that calls for the state’s education and higher education departments to create a strategic plan on the issue.

Lawmakers are also considering a bill that would grant rural school districts more flexibility in hiring retired teachers.