Education leaders hold town hall in Colorado Springs on state’s teacher shortages

By: Debbie Kelley

August 7, 2017 Updated: Today at 6:39 am
photo - (AP stock photo)
(AP stock photo) 

Is paying teachers more the best way to solve the statewide shortage? Maybe a compelling marketing campaign would help attract would-be teachers. What about providing college scholarships to high school students interested in the career?

Perhaps it would be best to have a more flexible system that allows people to work as part-time educators while maintaining their existing jobs or create an easier path for people who want a second career to fulfill that desire.

About 50 teachers, parents and administrators who attended a public town hall Monday at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs bandied about these and other ideas.

“We’re seeing across every single district a lack of educators,” said Robert Mitchell, from the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

It’s one of 11 town halls being held in communities around the state in July and August.

The meetings emerged from new legislation requiring the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Department of Education to develop a strategic action plan for recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers.

Every position – school psychologists and audiologists, counselors, secondary math and science teachers, bilingual and special education teachers – is not drawing enough qualified applicants, Mitchell said.

“It’s somewhat startling when I start rattling off what kind of teachers we need,” he said. “We have to think about ways we can bolster our current pipelines. We can’t continue down this road – it’s not acceptable for any of us.”

Research shows three primary reasons for the lack of teachers entering prep programs, Mitchell said.

Young people don’t view it as a desired profession, and it’s hard to make a living, he said. Starting salaries in Colorado range from $27,000 in the lowest-paying district in the state to $65,000 in the highest paying.

Top that off with the increasing costs of a college degree and return on the investment, Mitchell said, and you get a shortage that’s not going anywhere.

“Twenty-five percent of educators leave in first four years, citing building and leadership climate, poor pay and large workload,” he said.

Participants brainstormed strategies that the state agencies will present to legislators by Dec. 1.

Being a teacher is a tough job, said Elizabeth School District Superintendent Douglas Bissonette.

Between people thinking teachers are lazy because they get the summer off to parents who berate teachers to the low pay, he said, it’s often viewed as an undesirable profession.

“Maybe scholarships in the critical shortage areas would make it more affordable, or tax credits if you work in a rural district,” he said. “We also need way to mitigate parents beating up on teachers for whatever reason. Enhancing the perception has to start in our schools.”

Beth Cutter, alternative licensure coordinator at UCCS’ College of Education, said there’s record high enrollment in alternative licensure this year, with many students saying they have high-paying jobs they hate.

“They want to invest their lives in something more worthwhile, like teaching,” she said. “What if there was a media ad campaign – to make a difference, be a teacher. It could help people’s thinking.”

Data shows that salaries and compensation are important in attracting and retaining teachers, Mitchell said.

Several participants said without systemic change from legislators on how public schools are funded in Colorado, strategic conversations seem futile.

“Teachers are falling further behind in our district because we do not have the ability to raise the bottom pay or the middle,” said Terry Kimber, chief financial officer for Widefield School District 3. “We have a $828 million shortage from not funding Amendment 23 the way it was designed because they found a loop hole for the negative factor.”

Create a standardized, statewide tiered salary system for teachers that’s the same no matter the district, provide affordable housing for teachers, allow job-sharing and don’t penalize teachers for changing school districts were among other suggestions.

Anyone who could not attend a town hall about the teacher shortage and would like to submit comments can submit an online survey at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Q8ZZL8K.