Superintendent’s Corner column: Schools grateful for our voters’ support, generosity
If Colorado voters are as stingy as the Grinch on school funding, the voters in the Roaring Fork Valley are as generous as Santa Claus. During this season of generosity, we in the Roaring Fork Schools want to thank our communities for supporting public education and their schools.
While there is no doubt that your schools are facing many challenges because of the funding landscape for education in Colorado, we are luckier than many districts in Colorado: we have a community that supports our schools and prioritizes education. For your support, we are grateful and honored.
Voters in our district have always been very supportive of local education measures, and you supported statewide efforts over the past eight years as well. Just this past election, almost 60% of voters within the Roaring Fork School District voted in favor of Proposition CC that would have allowed the state to keep all revenue from existing taxes above the state spending cap to support K-12 education, higher education, and transportation. Statewide, just under 45% of voters supported the ballot measure.
In 2018, we saw a similar trend with Amendment 73, which would have increased funding for public education by increasing income, corporate, and property taxes. Statewide, voters supported the measure by only 45%, while if it were up to our voters, it would have passed by 58%.
Supporting public schools doesn’t seem to be a partisan issue in our valley where commitment to teachers and schools crosses all divides. But for some reason, we can’t count on voters across the state to provide the necessary resources to pay their teachers a living wage. Therefore, as we have done in the past, we may be parting ways with the state Capitol to seek local, community solutions to our challenges.
Something needs to change for Colorado schools to be able to keep up with the rest of the country. Colorado currently ranks 42nd in the nation for school funding even though it is the eighth most expensive state to live in and the 14th wealthiest state in the nation. In other words, Colorado schools receive some of the lowest funding levels in the country to pay its teachers to educate our students even though our state can, compared to other states, afford to do much better so that our staff can afford the high cost of living in Colorado.
The legislature is not empowered to fund education adequately in our state due to the complex constitutional constraints of TABOR and Gallagher. Tackling those problems is a monumental task for elected officials and voters that is not likely to happen anytime soon.
It is especially challenging for the Roaring Fork Schools to pay teachers and other staff members the wages they need and deserve. We have the third-highest cost of living of any Colorado school districts (only Aspen and Summit County are higher). Health insurance costs in our region are significantly higher than rates on the front range; for example, we pay $6,000 more for health coverage for every employee each year than a district in Denver, which leaves us comparatively fewer dollars to put into salaries.
While local funding varies from district to district, many of our neighboring and Front Range districts are bringing in more locally approved dollars to supplement their state funding.
For these reasons, our teacher salaries are lower than other school districts in similar high cost areas of our state and lag even further behind higher paying Front Range school districts. For instance, RFSD’s average salary is $15,000 to $20,000 below districts like Littleton and Cherry Creek where teachers also enjoy a lower cost of living.
Education is a market with high mobility. We are struggling to keep our talented teachers when they can make a better living elsewhere, and it is increasingly difficult to recruit new teachers to fill vacancies. If we want our students to be successful, we must ensure that we can attract and retain high quality staff. That’s why increasing teacher salaries is our top priority.
Who knows? We might see some progress from the legislature this season. There is currently a bipartisan committee looking at school finances yet again. Unlike past seasons, they better not shout and they better not fight; they better work together and do what’s right. This coming year, we’ll be making our list and checking it twice. And if the state Legislature continues to be naughty, we might look to our local communities to be nice.
In all seriousness, we are deeply appreciative that our voters understand the importance of public education. We do not take your support for granted. Have a wonderful new year!
Rob Stein is superintendent for Roaring Fork Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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