As school districts across the country deal with a teacher shortage, the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 has announced that it will look at “everything within our abilities” to attract qualified educators.
The announcement came after November’s failure of Ballot Measure 4A, a mill levy override designated for teacher and staff pay raises. Options presented involve adjusting the calendar to offer teachers more flexibility and revising the salary schedule through other budget cuts.
“Due to insufficient state funding, everything is on the table, and we are looking at all options that we might pursue for increasing teacher and staff retention,” Re-1 Superintendent Lori Haukeness wrote in a letter that was sent to parents Feb. 27. It also was published in The Journal in an opinion column.
Some decisions are set for the next Re-1 school board meeting on March 17.
In her letter, Haukeness highlighted a declining number of students pursuing a career in education, an increasing rate of teacher turnover and an increasing number of teachers who will soon be eligible to retire.
“Taken together, these trends are projected to lead to a shortage of 200,000 teachers nationwide by 2025,” she wrote. “In Colorado, there were 339 teaching positions that went unfilled last year due to this teacher shortage.”
And the need to attract quality teachers in Montezuma County is very real, administrators say. Right now, the starting salary in Re-1 for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree is a little over $31,500, and in recent years, some local teachers have begun commuting to Durango or Shiprock, New Mexico, both of which pay at least $8,000 more to first-year teachers.
Retaining staff and increasing the pool of experienced teachers is another priority, the district says. In the 2018-19 school year, the Re-1 turnover rate was about 24%, compared with a statewide rate of about 16%, according to Haukeness.
In November, Re-1 sought to pass a property tax increase for the second time in three years. The attempt failed, with 45% of voters in favor of it and 55% against it – leading Haukeness to say that they would need to make some “hard tough choices” in the future.
These choices appear to be upon the district now. A survey was sent to all teachers and support staff, asking for their ideas and budgetary priorities.
“The results were overwhelming in saying that staff wanted changes to the school calendar and for the board to consider a four-day week and to find ways to increase salaries, even if that meant cutting services,” Haukeness said in her letter.
After work sessions in January and February and based on feedback gathered in the surveys, the board is looking into a few different considerations.
The district has come up with two calendar options for 2020-21 to present to the board. One features a four-day week – a schedule already held by the majority of school districts in Colorado, including the Mancos School District Re-6.
According to the Colorado School Finance Project, as of August 2019, 109 of the state’s 178 school districts were heading into the school year on a four-day week schedule.
“Over 60% of districts in Colorado have a four-day week, and in order for our district to compete, we need to have this as an option,” Haukeness said. “We have personally struggled with the idea of a four-day week and its potential impact on students. However, we have come to believe that having qualified teachers is the most important goal.”
The other calendar that will be presented is a traditional five-day week schedule with early release on Fridays.
The other option the board will be considering is a revised salary schedule. The revised schedule would provide all staff with an extra step next year, along with an additional $3,000 to all steps of the teacher salary schedule – making the district more competitive regionally, although still below the state and national average.
“The district is proposing to pay for this through a series of cuts in services including: a modified calendar, restructuring bus routes, restructuring staffing, reducing budget for capital improvements to buildings,” Haukeness said.
The board will vote on the calendar at its meeting March 17 and will post the two options on its website for public review. They also may discuss trying again to get a mill levy override passed this November.
“If you look around the state, there are a lot of districts that have taken three times to pass a mill levy,” said school board member Jack Schuenemeyer at the latest regular meeting in February. He added too that much of the groundwork has already been set for a prospective campaign, after last year’s effort.
Teacher retention and Colorado education funding have been a hot-button topic in recent years, with more action on the horizon. A statewide march on the Colorado State Capitol is planned March 19 as a way to urge legislators to prioritize education funding as they look toward next year’s budget.
All three Montezuma County school districts have also passed resolutions in support of staff retention and advocating for further education funding at the state level.
“Turnover not only has a negative fiscal impact, it challenges the Board’s ability to maintain a stable school climate and culture, respond to every student’s needs, and to respond to parents and the community on District programs and services,” states the Dolores school board resolution, passed at a special meeting Feb. 27.