Roaring Fork Schools feeling squeeze across the board amid staffing crisis
Sustainability, quality of education concerns as school nears one-month mark
It’s all hands on deck — or as many as can be found — for the Roaring Fork School District in the midst of a staffing crisis that many in the district say they’ve never seen before.
As classes enter their fourth week, the district is still actively recruiting for more than 50 occupations ranging from bus drivers to special education paraprofessionals to food service workers. Some roles are understaffed by as much as 50%. Employees are working double-duty, assisting with other departments and teaching additional classes in their planning periods. Semi-qualified parents are taking support jobs. Supervisors are stepping into more hands-on roles, either in the kitchen, behind the wheel of a school bus or in the maintenance shop.
Through the chaos, the district is getting by. But the impact the shortage is having on students and just how long employees can keep it up are lingering questions.
“It’s not that sustainable how we’re filling the gaps,” Carbondale Middle School Principal Jennifer Lamont said. Her school has three vacant teaching positions, one teaching and two support.
“We are borrowing staff from other buildings to make our programming work, which is super taxing on those people. We haven’t found a good solution as of yet.”
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Cost of living, particularly housing, is damaging the district’s ability to not only bring in new staff members across the board, but also retain them. The Roaring Fork School District reportedly has the third-highest cost of living in the state of Colorado, but offers wages to teachers that rank 37th.
The median teacher wage in the district in fall 2020 was $56,424, a 10.2% increase from fall 2018, according to the Colorado Department of Education. However, in that same three year span, the price of a single-family home in Garfield County increased 21.5%, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors.
The school district offers 66 units of employee housing, but all are occupied. Many people simply can’t find a place to live.
Lamont said some applicants scoff at the idea of working in the Roaring Fork Valley when they can find a job for similar pay in Denver with more affordable housing options.
Carbondale Middle School has even gone to the length of creating a sign-up sheet to house new employees for a week at a time until the new hire finds a permanent option.
It’s causing positions to remain unfilled. Lamont said she offered one job to five different people before an applicant followed through all the way to onboarding.
Effects of the shortage are being felt in the classroom.
“The tricky thing is, when the position isn’t filled, you can’t just say, ‘We’re closing our doors,’ or, ‘The kids can’t come to school.’ They just keep coming,” Lamont said. “Our community is used to us really providing quality programming. When you’re asking teachers to do double jobs or cover other areas or rearrange schedules at the last minute to fit, it stresses our care.”
But the issue isn’t exclusive just to teachers. The strain on housing is driving away prospective applicants and existing roles in all departments.
As of Aug. 30, per Applitrack.com:
Early childhood teachers: Riverview, Sopris Elementary, Crystal River Elementary
Secondary special education teachers: districtwide
Special education paraprofessional: Bridges, Basalt Elementary, Basalt Middle, Basalt High, Crystal River Elementary, Glenwood Springs Elementary, Glenwood Springs High, Carbondale Middle, Riverview
School cooks: districtwide
Bus drivers: five positions, districtwide
In food services, Director of Nutrition Services Octavio Maese often finds himself back in the kitchen to fill the void of three open positions, despite a role that is supposed to include only administrative work.
“There’s always another hole to plug, another place to be,” Maese said.
Maese found himself having to replace six staff members over the summer. He was successful with two.
The departed staffers cited burnout, better pay and increasing gas prices that made a daily trip from Rifle to Glenwood Springs unfeasible.
Many of the same issues affect the supply chain, as well. Maese said food providers are lacking drivers. He highlighted chicken as an item that will be short in supply.
Couple supply and staffing shortages with an increased demand from the district’s second year of offering free meals for all students, and the result is a shorter menu.
“We’re still putting out several entrees a day with fruit and veggie varieties; however, they’re not as robust as the menu calls for.”
Maese said that he has to balance buying more expensive foods due to shortages with the labor cost of preparing them and meeting the higher demand of free meals. Most breakfasts and some lunches are often being reverted to pre-packaged meals, which Maese was quick to note did not necessarily mean a degradation in nutritional value, but it is still unideal.
In transportation, Director Jared Rains has seen his route bus driver roster shrink from 30 to 20 in the past two years. He hasn’t received an application that led to a fully trained, commercially licensed driver since November.
“We have and continue to cut service areas and increase ride times,” Rains said. “Students are showing up to school very early and leaving very late, which stresses the students and the school staff, who are also experiencing shortages.”
Much like other departments, it isn’t due to a lack of funds for new hires, either. It’s just that the funds offered aren’t bringing in candidates.
“I could put an additional five to 10 drivers to work tomorrow if I had them.”
The rest of the district is being squeezed, as well. Operations is down five custodial, two maintenance, two ground staff and an HVAC position. Special education is missing 16 paraprofessionals — half its ideal roster.
Some hope is on the horizon. In its most recent meeting, the Roaring Fork School District Board of Education passed a critical staff shortage resolution that allows it to rehire recent retirees in new roles. They also approved ballot language on a mill levy override increase that, if passed by voters, will source up to $7.7 million to assist with employee wages.
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Students in the woods/construction classes at Basalt High School are getting hands-on experience by building a tiny home.