You can imagine the conversation is awkward.
After July 1 of each year, Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger has an agreement to call neighboring superintendents whenever one of their teachers will be moving on to greener pastures: a new teaching gig in Durango when the next school year begins.
It’s a professional courtesy extended by Snowberger to surrounding school districts. With Durango raising its starting salary for teachers fresh out of college to $40,000, it might be a call Snowberger makes regularly this summer.
“Dan Snowberger has been nothing but professional about the situation,” said Lori Haukeness, superintendent of the Montezuma-Cortez School District.
Haukeness is likely to be on the receiving end of the call more than she wants: The starting pay for a first-year teacher in Cortez is $29,250, and the district was hit with 22 percent teacher turnover rate between school years 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Beyond the salary issues, Haukeness said all rural school districts are hurt by a decrease in the number of college students entering the teaching profession.
In 2005, 9.9 percent of all incoming college freshmen planned to major in education. By 2015, that number had dropped to 4.2 percent, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Amanda Bollinger, one of 21 education graduates this December at Fort Lewis College, said she thought increasing micromanagement of teachers and district rules limiting a teacher’s freedom in the classroom – rather than relatively low salaries – was the culprit making teaching less attractive to college students.
“I think it’s a field where not a lot of people really want to go that route, and it’s politics. Teachers don’t have a lot of freedom to teach like they’d want,” she said.
Haukeness said at her son’s recent graduation at Colorado State University when they asked all the education students to stand for acknowledgment, only 10 of 600 graduates rose.
“Absolutely, there’s not enough people going into the profession to cover those who are departing,” Haukeness said.
The Montezuma-Cortez district has struggled with low teacher pay for years, but it has not been for lack of trying to improve salaries. In November 2016, Montezuma County voters soundly rejected a district-requested mill levy that would have raised $4.95 million and brought up first-year starting teacher’s pay to a more competitive $33,368 – still almost $7,000 less than Durango’s pay.
Now, officials with the Montezuma-Cortez School District are in scramble mode trying to come up with creative ideas to boost teachers’ pay.
“The board,” Haukeness said, “is going to have as a focus for the next several months a discussion as to what options the district has, but our general fund can’t support what we need to do to get our salaries to a competitive level with our neighboring districts.”
Haukeness conducted a mid-year check-in with first- and second-year teachers, and she has heard two refrains from those who have indicated they are likely to be moving on: their spouse is having trouble finding a job in Cortez, and teachers would love to stay in the district and the community, but they can’t make it on their given salary.
From Snowberger’s standpoint, he says: “It’s really hard to tell a young teacher: ‘You can’t come here because you’ll be making more money.’ That’s not something we can do.”
Haukeness remains optimistic voters may eventually provide some relief.
“Obviously, if we can increase the quality of our education through the work of good, experienced teachers, that supports the community,” she said.
Unfortunately for Southwest Colorado, most districts in the region are dealing with issues more akin to those facing Haukeness in Cortez rather than Snowberger in Durango.
“Right now, we’re looking for two teachers, one in special ed and a math teacher,” said Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent of the Ignacio School District, in December. He added, “We’re in the same situation as every other small, rural district in Colorado.”
One problem Fuschetto has begun dealing with is familiar to Snowberger: housing headaches.
Fuschetto and Ignacio’s school board have begun examining a housing shortage that has been an obstacle in efforts to attract and retain teachers. The district will study entering the housing business – obtaining a few small 1- or 2-bedroom townhomes or apartments it can lease to young teachers having trouble finding affordable housing.
Durango also is pinched by its high housing costs, and Snowberger said 9-R, too, might soon become a landlord.
Across Southwest Colorado, Snowberger said the region’s introductory salaries combined with relatively high housing costs mean first- and second-year teachers are being asked to make ends meet on salaries that are close to the poverty level.
“Even at $40,000 in Durango, given our high housing costs, it’s tough,” he said.
Snowberger said he has had preliminary talks with developers about building units for teachers in Durango.
“All the districts in our region are going to have to wrestle with this. We’re going to have to get into the housing business,” he said.
In a similar vein, Amy Lyons, superintendent with the Bayfield School District, has established an infant and toddler child care program to help with teacher retention. The district is opening new buildings in 2018 that will allow the district to offer programs and services such as child care “that would be seen as a value-added benefit for current teachers and teachers interested in our district,” Lyons wrote in an email.
Given disparities in regional salary schedules, teacher retention has become an increasingly tough job for the Bayfield district, as well.
“While the district has been able to fill all of our positions, we have more openings each year and fewer candidates are applying,” she wrote. “This school year, we hired roughly 20 new teachers. When I started working in the district 13 years ago, we rarely had more than two or three openings in any given year.”