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Lower-paying and rural districts face teacher shortages 

The teacher isn’t in

click to enlarge Stipends and loan forgiveness may attract more teachers to rural districts. - LIZCOUGHLAN / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • LizCoughlan / Shutterstock.com
  • Stipends and loan forgiveness may attract more teachers to rural districts.

Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in northern El Paso County has felt the statewide teacher shortage more than its southern neighbors, district spokesperson Julie Stephen says. At the end of the 2016-17 academic year, the district needed to fill 63 open positions before school resumed that fall.

Circumstances had not improved much the next year, with 65 vacancies at the end of the 2017-18 year, she says. Robert Foster, the district’s executive director of personnel and student services, says he suspects the district will still struggle with that trend after the 2018-19 year is over. The district — which serves more than 1,000 students and encompasses the Tri-Lakes communities of Monument, Palmer Lake, Woodmoor and certain areas of Colorado Springs — is far from alone.

“What we’re experiencing is a lot of what education experts have been saying for years,” Stephen says.

About 81 percent of urban/suburban school districts, as well as 60 percent of smaller, rural districts, reported having vacant positions they were unable to fill at the start of the 2017-18 school year, according to data collected in fall 2017 by the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Of the responding districts, 81 percent of suburban/urban administrators and 85 percent of rural administrators reported fewer licensed candidates applying for the 2017-18 school year.

A 2018 study from the Education Law Center, a group that advocates for more school funding, ranked Colorado in last place nationally for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and the National Education Association ranked Colorado 24th for teacher pay in 2017, with an average annual salary of $52,736.

A first-year teacher can start his or her career making about $35,000 annually at D-38, Foster says. “We’re in the mix. Obviously, there are people higher and people lower, but we are somewhat competitive.”

Pueblo County School District 70 also struggles to fill certain teaching positions. Highly competitive fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, along with career and technical education courses, are consistently difficult to staff, says Andy Beeman, the district’s director of personnel services.

“This year we seem to be filling those pretty good,” Beeman says. “But by the time you hit mid-summer, all those people will be gone.”

However, Beeman thinks the district of 8,000 students holds a slight advantage over some of its counterparts when it comes to hiring and retaining employees. Those advantages are in spite of an average annual salary of $47,696 at the end of the 2016-17 school year — more than 6 percent lower than the state’s during that same period, according to data collected by The Colorado Sun

First-year teachers who are state certified make about $35,375 annually in D-70, Beeman says. “We have a good retention rate of our new teachers even though our pay scale starts a little bit lower than others. After a few years, it starts to catch up.”

In spite of low salaries rapidly driving Colorado educators out of the profession, Beeman says teachers tend to leave D-70 due to factors other than location or pay. “We can’t compete with the job market if the spouse moves away or moves out of state, but if it’s just based on job satisfaction, I think we do pretty well,” he says.

The median cost for a home in Pueblo stands at $149,800, according to bestplaces.net, compared with a $272,100 median cost in Colorado Springs. “We have a lower cost of living than even our neighbors to the north, such as Colorado Springs and up to Denver,” Beeman says. “That is one thing that helps us attract and retain candidates, I believe.”

Although large swaths of D-70 are in rural areas, the Pueblo area’s population of more than 100,000 seems to counteract the hiring issues that might plague other rural districts, Beeman says.

“We surround the city of Pueblo, so even though we have a rural part of our district, we draw from a large population center, and I think that helps us,” he says. “That large population center is available to our teachers, where in the smaller towns maybe they don’t have the amenities that a larger city would provide. We have a diverse geographical situation — we have mountain schools, we have urban/suburban schools and then rural schools. I think people find a good fit for what they’re looking for.”

The number of public school students in Colorado has been steadily increasing for decades, while the number of new teachers has been moving in the opposite direction, according to a 2017 article published by the University of Northern Colorado.

“Colorado schools are not producing enough teachers for our needs here,” D-38’s  Julie Stephen says. “They go out of state.”

Colorado higher education institutions graduate only about half the teachers the state needs each year, forcing many districts to import teachers from other states, according to the article. Indeed, D-38 officials have been relying more and more on online recruitment tools, such as LinkedIn, in order to attract out-of-state teachers, D-38’s Robert Foster says.

But even that presents a challenge, as Colorado districts are often unable to compete against teacher salaries across the nation, Stephen says.

“The state isn’t funding education, so people get a different degree and make more money in a different field,” she says. “That’s not just a Colorado problem either, although other states do fund more.”

The shortage of new teachers is not only hitting core classes such as math and science, but also electives like shop classes, Stephen says. More and more students are electing to take shop, but only two universities in the state offer certification programs for that subject.

“The need is growing, but there’s limited programs at that level, and we’re graduating far less math and science teachers than we need to replace retiring teachers,” Stephen says. “It’s a problem that’s compounding. We’re just having to cross-train teachers and do on-the-job training to get them certified to teach classes. People who are hired are meeting multiple needs.”

Lawmakers have proposed various strategies to address that problem, such as student loan forgiveness for teachers who agree to teach in rural schools. State Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, proposed bolstering programs offering state stipends to teachers who pursue alternative licensure or national certification while teaching in rural areas. 

The state offers fellowships and tuition stipends through the Colorado Center for Rural Education to encourage pre-service and experienced teachers to work in rural schools. The state had limited the number of $2,800 stipends for those who agree to student-teach in rural schools, but Todd’s Senate Bill 009, which has been signed into law, removes that cap and increases the amount of the annual stipends to as much as $4,000.

Stephen says D-38 does not offer signing bonuses or any other sort of incentive to new teachers. “Our incentive people get is that Colorado is still an attractive place to live and work,” she says. 

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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