Guest Opinion: Amendment 73 will increase teacher pay | PostIndependent.com

Guest Opinion: Amendment 73 will increase teacher pay

Rob Stein

Teachers are at a breaking point, and, without being able to pay them a living wage, we are going to lose them at increasing rates. Consider this note from a teacher to her students, explaining why she took a personal day last spring to advocate for finance reform at the state capitol:

"My husband and I are both teachers in the valley, and we both work second jobs. The only way we have been able to stay here for nine years is with the financial support of my parents. I hate that, despite having a master's degree, I still have to ask my parents for money. I also think about all of the excellent teachers that you have had growing up, who cannot stay in this valley because of finances. All of your teachers work with you every day because they love you. We believe in you, and it's time taxpayers invest in you, too."

You will have an opportunity to make a difference in the voting booth this November by supporting the Great Schools, Thriving Communities initiative, or Amendment 73. This amendment will move Colorado near, but not quite to, the national average for per pupil spending.

Amendment 73 is unique among Colorado school funding measures. It was the first ballot measure in state history to qualify with signatures from every senate district, which indicates an overwhelming level of support. Unlike other school funding mechanisms, it taxes corporations and income on individuals for earnings above $150,000 (after exemptions and deductions) instead of taxing property. This approach is especially suited to our region, where property values and living costs are high. In fact, the amendment is designed actually to lower commercial and residential property tax assessment rates for school districts by 5 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively. And 92 percent of Coloradans will see no impact on their income tax.

For most of those who earn above $150,000 per year, the impact will be slight. The tax will be graduated, starting at 0.37 percent for income between $150,000-$200,000 and increasing from there. So, for example, somebody who earns $180,000 in federal taxable income will pay only an additional $111 per year.

While the costs will be carried by the top 8 percent of income earners, 100 percent of the benefits will be shared by children in all families, in all public schools, subject to local control. Some of the statewide fund will be earmarked for currently underfunded areas, including special education, early childhood education, and full-day kindergarten. But Amendment 73 is designed to distribute most of the funds on a per pupil basis — a statewide average increase of $1,600 per student — to all schools in Colorado, where local boards approve the budgets.

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In our valley, we have already identified our top three priorities: teachers, teachers and teachers. The average Colorado teacher's salary is $7,000 below the national average. Adjusted for cost of living, Colorado's average teacher salary ranks 44th. In Colorado's rural districts, 95 percent of teachers don't make enough salary to cover the cost of living.

Typically, 83 percent of school budgets go to salaries and benefits, so teacher wages are a direct effect of school funding. According to the Colorado School Finance Project, Colorado ranks 42nd in the nation in per pupil spending and 47th in the nation in changes to school funding over the past decade. Colorado spends nearly $2,800 less per pupil than the national average and, when adjusted for inflation, $700 less than a decade ago.

Meanwhile, other personnel costs have increased, crowding out take-home wages. Health insurance has gone up 77 percent over the past 10 years, and we have shifted more health care costs to employees; for example, the employee deductible has increased from $2,500 to $4,000 per year. The district's contribution to PERA, the state retirement association, has increased 76 percent over the same time period and there, too, employees are paying more out of their paychecks and looking forward to fewer benefits upon retirement. Finally, as we who live in this region are painfully aware, housing costs are rising far faster than inflation, making it harder for middle-class employees like teachers to live and work in our communities.

With declining school funding and increasing pressure on teacher salaries, we're going to see increased attrition and fewer replacements standing in line, leading to a severe teacher shortage in the coming years. The storm is already gathering.

Teachers are not entering the field at the same rate as they are retiring. Due in large part to economic concerns such as low teacher pay, graduates of Colorado teacher preparation programs have decreased 17 percent over the past five years. Colorado already imports more teachers than it produces locally, but with a starting salary 9 percent below national averages, this is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

Teacher shortages are already acute for rural areas and for subjects including special education, science and math. In the Roaring Fork Schools, our turnover inched up slightly this year, but the applicants for hard-to-fill positions were down significantly. We had to hire more people with emergency and alternative licenses — people with no prior training or insufficient training in their specialty areas — than in previous years.

It is well known that Colorado's education funding situation is dire. Amendment 73 will give schools the resources to address their most acute needs, as determined by local boards. The cost to the vast majority of taxpayers will be nil. The benefits to kids of having a qualified teacher in every classroom will be incalculable. In November, you can make sure Colorado is investing in the future success of its students, teachers and schools by supporting the Great Schools, Thriving Communities initiative.

Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the Roaring Fork Schools or the school board.