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.”

Vision quest

Is Colorado’s school ‘vision bill’ doomed?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Rangeview junior Coree Morgan works on an assignment in her electronics class.

A proposed overhaul of Colorado’s public schools has hit a legislative roadblock.

State Senate leadership has assigned a bill that would create a series of legislative committees to study and propose changes to Colorado’s education laws to the State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

That legislative panel is known for killing bills leadership opposes.

Sponsors of the House Bill 1287, which cleared the state House of Representatives earlier this month with broad bipartisan support, argue Colorado’s education policies are a patchwork of reform efforts and outdated mandates. And given the state’s decentralized education system, the legislature needs to play a larger role in creating a clearer vision for what Colorado schools should look like in the 21st Century.

But Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said he believes the bill is just setting up an argument to send more money to schools.

“It seems like their focus is proving a premise that more money is necessary,” Holbert said Monday. “And that’s just not a premise I’m comfortable in supporting.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, called Holbert’s objection shortsighted.

“It’s a dangerous viewpoint,” Rankin said. ”That’s not what this is.”

Rankin and his House co-sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, both serve on the legislative committee that writes the state’s budget. For years they’ve advocated for making changes to how the state funds schools.

One of the stated goals of the bill, Hamner and Rankin have said, is to create a unified vision for the state’s schools that could be sold to voters if it was determined a tax increase would be necessary.

Between the two, Rankin has been less bullish on the argument that schools need more money.

But the bill would also provide the state a chance to review and reconsider major education legislation that’s been enacted since 2008. That includes everything from new graduation requirements for high school students to teacher evaluations.

The state affairs committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday.

One of the members of the committee, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, was a sponsor of the bill. But he dropped his support earlier this month.

He said he objected to the new bureaucratic structure the bill creates.

“A permanent new government program is not the right direction now,” he said, referring to the committees established in the bill.

Rankin, who called the bill one of the most important of his legislative career, said he’s holding out hope and would continue the conversation regardless.

“We don’t think strategically. It’s hard for most of the folks in the legislature to think way ahead,” Rankin said. “I realize it’s a heavy lift, and even if the bill does fail, we have to keep talking about it.”

life support

Partisan bickering puts financial lifeline for rural schools in danger

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that would send hundreds of millions of dollars to Colorado’s rural schools faces an uncertain future after party leaders in both legislative chambers Thursday accused each other of not negotiating in good faith.

The multifaceted bill is one of the most complicated of the session. It would send money to rural hospitals, roads and schools. But if lawmakers fail to resolve their differences, hospitals would face severe cuts — forcing some in rural areas to close altogether.

What makes Senate Bill 267 so controversial is that the cornerstone of the bill would redesignate a fee collected by the state that helps pay for Medicaid.

The money the state collects from hospital patients is funneled to the state’s general operating budget. The state’s constitution limits how much that pot of money can grow each year. The bill would redirect the hospital fee to an enterprise account that isn’t subject to that constitutional provision.

Democrats have wanted to redesignate the hospital fee since 2015. They believe reclassifying the fee would elevate some budgetary pressures that have forced schools and other state services to be underfunded. Republicans have staunchly opposed the change. They’ve said it would violate the constitution and the will of voters.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, changed his mind this year after seeing the potential cuts to rural hospitals. He introduced the bill with state Sen. Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, and state Reps. K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat, and Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican.

The bill was always a long shot. There are plenty of provisions neither chamber liked. And it would potentially take a coalition of both parties to pass the bill

But a disagreement over whether the state should lower its spending gap in tandem with redesignating the fee has thrown negotiations into further peril.

Early Thursday, Sonnenberg told reporters he was done negotiating with Democrats. He signaled he would kill the bill that was scheduled for a second hearing later in the morning. While he backed away from his threat, he took shots at Democrats.

“We didn’t kill it,” he told Chalkbeat after sparing the bill. “I’m not ready to give up. But I’m close.”

Sonnenberg said he believes he’s given Democrats more than he should, increasing the amount he’d cap government spending at. But that hasn’t been enough for them, he said.
“I want to save hospitals,” he said. “They want more tax dollars.”

Democrats said they’re concerned the bill as written would trigger another round of budget cuts to all government services, including schools

“It puts our budget in problem territory in no time at all,” said Becker, the Boulder Democrat.

“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

House Democrats said they’re hoping to restart negotiations soon and will offer “creative solutions.”

Senate Bill 267 is scheduled for another hearing Tuesday.

“We are still holding out hope for rural schools,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Rural Alliance, which represents the state’s rural schools. “We’re grateful to Sen. Sonnenberg and the bill’s other sponsors for their leadership and efforts to bring critical resources to rural communities.”