Superintendent’s Corner column: Being a great place to work takes more than money
Recently, the Post Independent editorial board declared, “Increasing teacher pay within the Roaring Fork School District is without a doubt a reasonable policy goal,” but also encouraged us to “continue seeking other ways to boost the quality of life for our teachers and district staff.” We couldn’t agree more.
A key goal first established in a strategic planning process in 2013 has been to make the Roaring Fork Schools a great place to work and learn for staff and students. We know that an engaged and thriving workforce is key to staff retention and recruitment and crucial to fulfilling our mission for students. We monitor that goal through annual staff surveys, so we know that 88% of teachers say that RFSD is a great place to work. This means a lot more than paying people a living wage, and for years we have been employing cost-neutral strategies as well as making costly investments.
First and most importantly, work in schools has meaning. We consider all of our employees educators, and most of them–food service workers, bus drivers, secretaries, and custodians, in addition to teachers and school leaders–get to work with kids every day, helping them learn, keeping them safe, and investing in their future. That sense of meaning and purpose is why most educators chose it as a profession, and it’s what keeps them in the field in spite of compensation that lags behind other fields.
A second non-financial contributor to employee satisfaction is being able to work in an environment characterized by respect, trust, collaboration, empowerment, and support. We create these conditions by giving our teachers time and resources to work collectively to study their practice, make decisions about curriculum, and work in teams to solve problems. Each school has a building leadership team that increases teacher voice in decision-making; creates, implements, and monitors strategic goals; and addresses staff concerns and needs.
Knowing that conflict will arise, for over 20 years we have used a collaborative approach to problem-solving called Interest Based Bargaining. Unlike the industrial labor model of collective bargaining used in most school districts to negotiate teacher compensation and working conditions, IBB is sometimes called win-win bargaining because it seeks to meet the needs of both sides. According to teacher Autumn Rivera, “IBB doesn’t have levels or hierarchy. We all are people on the same team fighting for what’s best for our students and staff.”
Moving from the intangible to the more material investments, we believe strongly in employee health and wellness. In fact, our IBB group several years ago recommended a smaller pay increase for teachers in order to pay for health insurance for all employees in the district. Knowing that our health insurance costs in this valley are about $6,000 more per employee than a district in Denver, that was a sizable investment in health. We also launched an employee-led wellness program in 2019 that provides tools, resources, incentives, and education to help employees become more physically, mentally, and financially healthy.
Another investment valued highly by both teachers and parents is small class sizes. Again, our IBB group continually decides to maintain smaller class sizes–we average 19 in our elementary schools–rather than shifting those resources to salaries. In doing so, they are prioritizing working conditions and the learning of their students over compensation.
We were one of the first districts—not just in Colorado but nationally–to successfully launch a staff housing program. Thanks to voter support in 2015, we were able to build 66 staff rental units total and provide affordable housing options in every community as part of our bond program. While we weren’t able to use those bond dollars for things like increasing staff salaries–because bonds can’t be used for recurring expenses like salaries–being able to provide affordable staff housing for nearly 10% of our workforce plays a critical part in making sure we can retain and recruit staff. Using the revenues from the program, combined with land made available to school districts through housing development, we will be able to expand our staff housing program over time.
One of the benefits for many employees of a school district is the compatibility with family schedules and calendars. But parents still need quality childcare. We run a fully licensed early childhood program at each of our five elementary schools, and our staff receive priority enrollment in this program. Currently over 50 staff members, 25% of total enrollment, are receiving this benefit.
Our friends at the Post Independent made a few additional suggestions that are worth considering, such as, “more paid time off, flexible schedules and allowing for remote work.” We do provide a competitive leave policy and as much flexibility as possible, although every day a highly skilled teacher is out of the classroom means less learning. The experience of distance learning during the pandemic has affirmed the importance of being in-person with students whenever possible, but we have already increased our use of working and meeting remotely.
Finally, it’s the region that draws and keeps many of our employees, and we benefit from the generosity of partner organizations who provide discounted rates to make some of the valley’s greatest attractions attainable. As the Post Independent asserts, having a great job means having a living wage and so much more. We will continue to seek additional ways to make our school district a great place to work.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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