Superintendent’s Corner column: Roaring Fork Schools face a staffing crisis |

Superintendent’s Corner column: Roaring Fork Schools face a staffing crisis

Rob Stein
Superintendent's Corner
Rob Stein

“We’re not trying to stop a staff crisis that might happen some time in the future. We’re having the staffing crisis now,” Ellen Freedman, a member of the mill levy override exploration committee, said in her presentation to the Board of Education earlier this month.

She’s right. Over the last five months, we’ve been presenting our community with two possible futures: a staffing crisis that affects every aspect of our schools, or increased funding to be able to provide the best schools for our community. As we geared up for the 2021-22 school year, we found ourselves with more vacancies and last-minute departures than we’ve ever seen before: almost every school and department has unfilled positions, and the job pool is smaller than ever. Indeed, the staffing crisis is here and will likely get worse unless something changes.

Every department and school is facing a staffing crisis, but some areas are especially critical.

The substitute shortage is more dire than ever. One school leader shared that when a teacher needs to be out, the school has to make other plans by combining classes into groups reaching up to 40, or asking teachers to substitute in other classrooms during plan times. Another shared that administrators are spending a lot of time substituting in classrooms and are having to deny teachers personal leave because there is no coverage.

Math teachers continue to be in extremely short supply. One school’s best math teaching prospect in some years, who very much wanted to join the school, could not afford a house in the area and went to Boulder instead. Another school needing two math teachers could get only one, which required rescheduling the school, increasing class sizes and reassigning staff to positions for which they weren’t highly qualified. In the face of high turnover, another school has found the pool of applicants shrinking over time; in the past two years they received almost no applications for teaching positions, even those without licensure or teaching experience.

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Our early childhood program is not running at full capacity because of staffing, which is especially challenging for the many families in our community struggling to find child care. Due to the staffing shortage, a few classrooms are empty; we have closed classrooms temporarily; and we fear that some of those closures may extend for the year. This would impact our youngest students, where high-quality programming is most important.

In the transportation, food service and facilities departments, we are currently down a total of 18 staff, which puts us in an extremely fragile state. The managers and staff of these departments are performing miracles to keep things going, but, in some instances, the teams are barely hanging on. Some bus drivers are driving double routes, dropping students off early or sometimes up to an hour late, and keeping kids waiting after school. One principal has been emptying the trash in classrooms because the custodial team is stretched so thin. The Food Services director has spent entire days working in school kitchens to help fill in to support the school meal program, leaving less time for important administrative work. If the situation gets any worse, there will be tough decisions about further peeling back services.

We are so short-staffed in special education teachers and paraprofessionals that we are on the verge of reducing services. Our nursing program has not been fully staffed for years, but at this moment we have two full-time nurses serving 5,400 students. Although we allocate a health aide for every school — an important service during the pandemic — Basalt currently has none. Family liaisons are splitting time between schools, cutting in half the services they can provide to families.

Our school and department leaders agree on a few themes:

  • The labor pool is as bad as our leaders have ever seen it. Job postings will sit for weeks without any applicants.
  • Candidates will accept an offer only to rescind it after they have researched the cost of living in the valley.
  • If someone calls in sick or is scheduled for leave, there is no coverage, which means work doesn’t get done, classes are combined, or staff are stretched to their limits.
  • With so many vacant positions, some work just isn’t getting done.
  • We are hiring an increasing number of unlicensed staff who have no formal training in teaching.

As a student, staff member, parent or community member, you have likely started to see the effects of this staffing crisis. While the labor shortage isn’t unique to the Roaring Fork Schools, it is more dire for us because our funding is set by the state, and it doesn’t take local markets into account. Unless we find a local source of funds, further cuts to programs and services will be inevitable.

Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

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