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Math teacher: wage, housing “Just doesn’t add up”

Will Grandbois
wgrandbois@postindependent.com

Roaring Fork School District struggles with above-average turnover rates, and cost of living may be to blame.

Last year, 78 percent of RFSD employees stuck around, compared with 85 percent in Garfield County Re-2 and a state average of 80 percent. The district fared better in the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 school years, tying the state average but still trailing Re-2, but saw a major exodus amid budget cuts in 2011-12, with 29 percent of the staff departing.

Exit interviews show that many of those leaving are either moving somewhere with cheaper housing or opting for a job with higher wages.

“It’s difficult for us to compete,” said RFSD Human Resources director Nikki Jost. “We lose teachers upvalley to Aspen because they have a higher salary, we lose teachers downvalley to Re-2 because they have a four-day work week.”

Data isn’t available for this year yet, but it looks like more of the same.

Although they made enough to get by, Jordan and Abigail Kurt-Mason came to realize that they’d be hard pressed to put together anything close to the American dream.

“It would be really nice to own a house before we start having kids, or at least be in a spot where we’re not spending the majority of our pay on rent,” said Jordan, who taught math at Glenwood Springs High School. “It doesn’t add up.”

In the same position in Afton, Wyoming, Jordan is looking at a nice raise. Abigail, who served as a school psychologist at RFSD and then Grand Valley, will see a substantial increase as well. That’s largely because Wyoming is one of the top-ranking states when it comes to per-pupil education funding, while Colorado lags.

“This is a problem across the state,” Jordan said. “It’s not just here, but it’s exaggerated because of how expensive it is to be here.”

HOUSING COSTS

The difference is underscored by the relative housing markets.

“The mortgage that we’ll be paying in Wyoming for a four-bedroom, three-bath home will be commensurate with rent in the Roaring Fork Valley,” he said.

It’s a hard decision for both Jordan, a Colorado native, and Abigail, who coincidentally hails from Carbondale, Illinois.

“We love it here,” Jordan said. The school is fantastic. The administration is wonderful to work for. The staff is great.”

“We never imagined we’d be moving to Wyoming,” Abigail agreed. “We have an awesome spot in Carbondale, but it’s a tease because we can’t make it our own. We even looked at moving downvalley to New Castle and couldn’t make that work.”

For a while, the Kurt-Masons hoped that things might improve, but there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I see so many folks that want family, want a home and they just can’t find it,” Abigail said. “The people that stay are young and are doing seasonal work as waitresses or raft guides.”

There are other concessions.

“Everybody has a roommate,” said Krystal Wu, who taught English at Roaring Fork High School. “I think for young people that’s OK, but when you want to settle down and you can’t afford it, you move on.”

Wu’s husband, Matt Miller, is leaving the (co)Studio design and build class at Glenwood Springs High School for a tenured position at the University of Idaho’s architecture school. Wu will actually take a pay cut, but the cost of living and Miller’s raise will more than make up for it.

BEYOND PAY

While the job offer was the deciding factor for their move, the pair were actively looking for other opportunities.

“Matt and I knew when we moved here that it wasn’t going to be forever, but I don’t think we thought it would be only two years,” Wu said.

Pay was certainly a factor, Miller said. Teachers are rarely flush, in many places a dual income is enough to afford a standard middle class lifestyle. Here, the scale is altogether different.

“It’s all perspective,” he observed. “The other half of this valley doesn’t make this kind of money, and commute half an hour each way to work two or three jobs.”

That might even include some district employees, like bus drivers, janitors and cafeteria workers.

It’s not just about the money. Wu’s family is in Oregon and Miller’s is in West Virginia. Without a major airport nearby, it can be tricky to visit.

Despite that, the area’s allure is such that couple had dozens of inquires about their apartment, which was finally claimed from the same former Re-2 teacher who will fill Wu’s vacated position at RFHS.

For the most part, that same draw means there’s a robust pool of potential teachers interested in making the move. Miller’s job has proven harder to fill, with two applicants so far turning down the job because of the pay.

STUDENTS AFFECTED

The biggest impact of the constant turnover is on the students themselves.

“It’s really hard to leave. Teaching is the kind of career you do best when you’re really entrenched in a community,” Wu said. “If you don’t have people returning year after year, you can’t really make serious gains or serious changes.”

“All we are at the end of the day is role models to these kids,” Miller agreed. “It’s not about the content, it’s about the relationships and the character development that happens.”

Jost has a similar perspective.

“If you have higher turnover rate, that means less stability,” she said. “Typically, the longer your staff are there, the smoother things run.”

That’s not to say that a little new blood doesn’t push innovation, but Jost is looking for a balance closer to 10 percent turnover. It’s particularly tricky to replace secondary math and foreign language teachers.

As with Miller’s position, it’s not for lack of interest.

“We have really great quality candidates that are turning down jobs because they can’t afford to live here,” Jost said. “That’s heartbreaking. We always want to hire the best.”

There are a handful of potential solutions.

Colorado Mountain College’s elementary education program should help provide more teachers who already have a foothold in the area, some of whom are already student teaching.

“I think that that’s going to be a great pipeline, and something that schools and the community will really benefit from,” Jost said.

The district is already looking into providing affordable housing, although with the majority of funding already going to staff and benefits it’s hard to find the capital. They could cut teachers and increase class size in an effort to pay the remaining staff more, but the cost to students would likely outweigh any benefit to teachers.

In the end, barring a sudden increase in state funding or another source of new income, things probably aren’t going to change anytime soon. In the mean time, Jost said, district will continue to provide the best education it can.

“I think it is our responsibility to be able to demonstrate to the community that the service we offer is the best experience that your kids can have,” she said.


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