Summit School District mostly dodging statewide teacher shortage — for now |

Summit School District mostly dodging statewide teacher shortage — for now

Kevin Fixler
Silverthorne Elementary teacher Liz McFarland, a veteran of the Summit School District, speaks to her new class of fifth-grade students during the first day of school on Thursday, Aug. 24.
Hugh Carey / |

Annual attrition in public education is common across the nation, and the Summit School District is neither immune nor avoiding seeing similar trends coming down the pike.

To take on the growing challenge — what some have called a statewide crisis — two Durango state lawmakers, Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Democrat, and Sen. Don Coram, a Republican, sponsored a bill in their respective congressional houses this past legislative session. House Bill 17-1003 was created to develop a strategic plan by the end of the year to address the mounting problem, and primarily along party lines the bill passed each house before Gov. John Hickenlooper signed it into law in May.

Colorado loses approximately 15 percent of new classroom teachers within their first five years, according to the state’s Department of Higher Education, with reports asserting the need for roughly 3,000 educators to fill existing positions heading into this academic calendar. Nationally the numbers are even worse, with about 17 percent of teachers exiting the field in that five-year window.

The new state law identifies a number of factors for why teachers leave, from low compensation and high costs of entering the profession, to diminished support and resources, as well as declining working environments. The causes for teacher shortages, it reads, vary widely across Colorado, with many rural locations facing the largest deficits.

In Summit County, the public school district has yet to hit a tipping point. But it may also not be far off.

“Historically, because we’re a desirable location — we’re a smaller district and perform strong academically — we’re attractive to teachers, so we benefit just from our location, performance and size,” said Julie McCluskie, spokeswoman for the Summit School District. “We see it coming because there are fewer applicants, but we’re able to fill our positions currently with qualified, talented teachers. We’re not at a crisis point.”

The Summit School District filled 28 teachers thus far for the 2017-18 academic year toward its stock of about 300 full-time licensed positions. Among other listings for custodians, bus drivers and a few permanent substitutes, the district website presently shows just two vacant full-time teaching openings despite the 25-30 percent decline in applications the past couple years.

Across its six elementaries, one middle school and two high schools, Summit has hired an average of 38 teachers annually for the past four years. That three-to-five-year range is also when it tends to see drop-off for myriad reasons and it expects to hit around that 35 total, amounting to that lower 12-13 percent turnover, again by year’s end.

Aside from those ingredients that might entice someone to Summit County, the district has been proactive in raising base salaries the last few years to a level that retains talent. The entry-level pay rate for a teacher with proper certification and no prior experience is $40,800.

“We want to be competitive and attract quality teachers, but things like housing and the cost of living are higher here in the resort community than maybe in some urban districts,” said McCluskie. “We still struggle because housing prices are on the rise and the availability is being diminished, so it’s just a challenge, but we still want to provide a salary that supports someone’s lifestyle here in the mountains.”

The district’s salary schedule for 2017-18 provides for increases of $750 annually after year two through 26. It also rewards continuing education, offering bumps of about $2,000 for each additional 12 graduate-level semester hours completed.

Potential solutions for the statewide teacher shortfall remain on the horizon as the new law works toward its recommendations to several state boards and agencies. At least one other broad-based stakeholder group — the Colorado Educator Preparation and Innovation Coalition — has been working toward similar goals through pilot programs for the past two years.

Whether those will have discernable impact is not yet known, nor is it clear if Summit can begin to expect rising numbers for its own turnover rates in the coming summers. But at least for the active academic year, Summit is ahead of many of Colorado’s other smaller communities.

“This is not an industry people enter to make money,” said McCluskie. “In some rural communities, especially on the Eastern Plains, they can’t find a math teacher, they can’t find a science teacher and … there are some pretty dramatic stories out there. But there are reasons why we’re not in the firestorm yet.”

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