Stein column: 2021-22 school district budget provides temporary reprieve to looming crisis
We are on the brink of the worst staffing crisis in my career as an educator. Thankfully, while early budget forecasts painted a dire picture for the 2021-22 school year, the Roaring Fork Schools will actually see a slight increase in funding since last school year to near pre-pandemic funding levels. This will prevent us from having to make program or staffing cuts or from dipping further into reserves this year, but it does not solve the staffing crisis we are facing as a district.
Yes, we have reached the point of crisis. We are seeing more and more unfilled positions as people find they can’t afford to live on our wages. Three out of four teachers turn us down when we offer them a job, citing inadequate salary and high cost of living. More than a third of new teachers leave within three years, and those who stay are working two and three jobs to make ends meet. For some hard-to-fill positions, such as math, science and special education, we have had no qualified applicants as we approach the school year.
Despite the work we all did in 2018-19 to push every possible dollar to salaries — we scraped together $750,000 to give our teachers a small raise — we are still facing increasing staff turnover and unfilled positions and needed to do something to prevent an impending crisis. Therefore, we began exploring the feasibility of a mill levy override (MLO) to provide competitive and equitable compensation for all staff.
There are two reasons our schools are underfunded. In part, it’s due to an arcane funding formula established by the Legislature, which tries, but fails, to capture things such as the cost of living differences between school districts. For example, Aspen schools receive about $1,300 more per student in state funding than the Roaring Fork Schools. When you consider that about 83% of school budgets are spent on salaries, and many of their staff live downvalley in our district, it’s hard for us to compete with Aspen for teachers.
A true solution would rely both on fixing the funding formula and finding more dollars for schools. That, in Colorado, requires the will of the voters, and every statewide ballot initiative to increase school funding in the past few decades has failed. Roaring Fork Schools can’t afford to wait decades for the state to change its collective mind about school funding, which is why we need a local solution to address our staffing crisis and provide the best schools for our community.
While all schools in Colorado suffer from inadequate funding given the state ranks 40th in the nation in per pupil funding despite being a relatively wealthy state, things are more dire in the Roaring Fork School District. While our district has the third highest cost of living in Colorado, our per pupil funding ranks 60th. Due to prudent fiscal management, we are able to pay our teachers the 37th highest wages in the state. This discrepancy between cost of living and pay has made it increasingly difficult to retain and attract qualified teachers and staff to support our students.
All of our neighboring districts have stepped up with voter-approved mill levy overrides to augment school funding locally. That means that Aspen, Eagle, Garfield Re-2 and Parachute school districts are all receiving more funding through local mill levy overrides than the Roaring Fork Schools. To be competitive and able to offer our teachers and staff a living wage, our community can increase property taxes through an mill levy override comparable to our neighboring districts, costing average homeowners approximately $3.50 per month per $100,000 of actual home value.
We must keep our great teachers and staff in our schools, and that will require the support of our community.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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