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Colorado Takes Notes To Solve Looming Teacher Shortage

Jackie Fortier
Robert Mitchell, director of education preparation takes notes at the town hall meeting at Colorado State University July 28, 2017.

As teachers gear up for the new school year, state education officials have spent months trying to figure out how to close a growing teacher shortage. It’s estimated that 3,000 people are needed to fill open positions in Colorado. Legislation signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper directs the Colorado Department of Education to study how best to attract -- and then keep -- teachers in the profession.

About 50 people - mostly educators - turned up for a town hall meeting held by state education officials at Colorado State University. The idea was to brainstorm solutions to the teacher shortage.

“We are starting to hear a lot of repetition, which is really great, because those are strategies that people think would be really helpful,” said Colleen O’Neil, director of educator talent for the state department of education. “But in every single one of them [town halls] we are hearing new ideas that we’ve never even thought about, which is huge.”

Experts say the problem is only going to get worse. A third of current teachers in Colorado will be eligible for retirement within the next five years. That makes finding a solution -- or solutions -- ever more imperative. The audience came prepared with suggestions ranging from a type of GI bill for teachers, to raising awareness that it is a profession, not a job.

“The perception in the public isn’t that we’re professionals and we don’t want to be looked at as a bunch of people who just complain and who are just looking out for money,” said Kendra Villareal, a counselor at Greeley Central High School. “We want people to see us as out there to help our students become better citizens in our society, and our legislators need to understand that’s really what we’re there for.”  

Compensation was a hot topic, with many participants asserting that in order to attract people to the profession they would first need to be paid enough to make their own student loans worth it.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, was also brought up. Passed in 1992 by voters, it’s a constitutional amendment that limits growth by capping state revenue at population plus inflation growth. The balance must be refunded to taxpayers. TABOR affects how much money can be allocated to the state’s general fund - which in turn affects how much can be spent on education, transportation, Medicaid, and other public services.

“TABOR is absolutely killing us, as a state. TABOR is strangling our ability to fund what we need to fund,” said Jason Nurton, a teacher at Webber Middle School in Fort Collins. “Teachers don’t get into teaching to be these political advocates and to go and fight. We are nurturers at heart I think, and so when you have to put that other hat on to fight for something that should be a given, it’s hard to do.”

Some of the underlying problems are already known -- low salaries, ever increasing housing prices and a tangled school funding formula. Eyestone Elementary School teacher Shannell Sedgwick suggested that oil and gas companies be taxed at a higher rate in order to better fund public education.

“Just like Wyoming said, we deserve to get something back for what they are taking from us,” Sedgwick said. “And one of those things they can give back is some tax money.”

There are more town hall meetings throughout the state, and an online survey in both English and Spanish. Education officials will put together recommendations, including addressing teacher salaries, and will submit them to the legislature Dec. 1, 2017.

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