Growing teacher shortage

Colorado’s rural districts struggle to fill teaching jobs

In this 2007 photo, Edison School kindergarteners head back to class in their 1922 school building (Photo by Karl Gehring/The Denver Post)

The school year is in its second week and your small district is short a second-grade teacher. What’s a rural superintendent to do? Coax a Nebraska teacher out of retirement.

Bret Miles did exactly that one year when he was superintendent of the 594-student Holyoke school district in northeastern Colorado, about 35 miles south of the Nebraska line.

Despite growing anxiety about teacher preparation programs producing fewer graduates, most large Front Range districts still can pick and choose when they fill teaching jobs.

That’s not the case in many of Colorado’s 147 rural districts, 109 of which are specifically designated as small rural, with fewer than 1,000 students each. The state has 178 total districts.

The issue will be in the spotlight Wednesday at the Capitol when the Senate Education Committee considers a bill that proposes several steps to help rural districts, including stipends for student teachers.

The sponsor, Sen. Nancy Todd, admits that Senate Bill 16-1004 won’t fix the problem. But the Aurora Democrat and retired teacher hopes it’s a step in the right direction.

“I think it’s a moral obligation,” she said.. “If we’re shortchange the children in our rural areas, it will have fallout statewide.”

By the numbers

Many superintendents tell stories similar to Miles’. Superintendent Sharon Green said because of a dearth of applicants her 132-student Revere district went a full school year without a music teacher.

“It’s a crisis,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Miles, now executive director of the Northeast Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said the longstanding challenge of finding teachers in math, science, special education and other specialties has grown more difficult.

The full scope of the rural teacher shortage is difficult to determine. No agency or advocacy group keeps statistics on how many teachers apply for rural jobs or how many positions go unfilled.

“We know we’re producing substantially fewer teachers than we were five years ago,” said Robert Mitchell, academic policy officer for educator preparation at the state Department of Higher Education “The first regions impacted by that are those districts in rural Colorado.”

Salaries, remoteness challenges for rural districts

Superintendents and state officials agree that the remoteness of many rural districts and relatively low salaries are key factors in the problem.

“It is my belief that there is one issue, and that issue is salary,” said Douglas Bissonette, superintendent of the 2,481-student Elizabeth school district.

Bissonette has studied teacher salaries and found that teachers in the largest, best-paying districts earn an average of about $58,000 year, compared to an average of $38,000 in the small, lowest-paying districts.

Miles added some teaching candidates turn down jobs because of a lack of jobs available for spouses.

To illustrate the salary problem, Merino Superintendent Rob Sanders often tells the story of a high school science teacher who quit in the middle of the school year for a job that paid twice as much. Her new post was at the state prison in Sterling.

What districts are doing

Rural districts welcome legislative interest in their plight but also are doing what they can to help themselves.

Some district cooperatives rural areas are preparing teachers in their own alternative programs. In some cases these BOCES are turning to aides and paraprofessionals already working in schools.The program in the Northeast BOCES trained 21 teachers last year.

Districts are casting a wide net. Miles is headed to Michigan later this year to recruit teachers for his 12 member districts. He’ll visit ive colleges in five days.

A few rural districts have hired teachers from outside the country.

A new grant-funded effort at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison is seeking to build connections between teacher prep programs and rural districts.

Most college and university education programs “really haven’t focused” on preparing rural teachers, the state’s Mitchell said.

Megan Quitter, rural education outreach coordinator for the Western State program, said she’s working to “establish a network of teacher prep programs and rural school districts, making sure students know about the benefits of rural teaching.”

What the bill proposes

Todd’s SB 16-104 proposes four initiatives:

  • Create one or more rural education centers at colleges and universities, extending the work started at Western State, whose grant runs for only 18 months.
  • Provide of stipends for prospective teachers who do their student teaching in rural districts.
  • Establish a “teacher cadet” programs in rural districts to encourage middle and high school students to consider teaching as a career.
  • Pay rural teachers who are pursuing National Board Certification or a master’s degrees necessary to teach concurrent enrollment classes.

Legislative staff haven’t prepared a cost estimate for the bill. But Capitol observers say the bill will need to cost less than $1 million for the bill to reach the governor’s desk in a tight budget year.

Todd’s modest bill is emblematic of the challenge Colorado lawmakers face when trying to respond to statewide education needs.

For instance, she noted, there’s no money available for bigger ideas like paying off student loans for teachers who move to rural districts.

“We’re not talking big, big money,” Todd said. “I’m very mindful of where our budget is.”

Lawmakers have taken some small steps for rural districts in recent sessions.

Last year the legislature approved an extra $10 million in per-student aid to such districts on top of the normal finance formula. A 2014 law gave rural districts some flexibility in meeting state paperwork requirements.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.