School,Bus,On,Blacktop,With,Clean,Sunny,Background

A bus driver watches to ensure a student makes it up the steps safely while waiting for other students to arrive at her bus. 

Local school districts have avoided the teacher shortage currently plaguing the rest of the country. 

At least, so far. 

Representatives at Harrison School District 2 and Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs District 11, said teaching staffs are tight, but they haven’t eliminated classes due to a lack of educators. 

However, local schools haven’t escaped shortages in other departments. 

In HSD2, a lack of paraprofessionals and transportation workers forced the staff to get creative while at Mitchell, maintenance/custodial staffing is low even as  faculty develop methods to retain students.

“I think we as educators all just want to do what’s best for students at the end of the day,” said HSD2 Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel. “We’re all working across the board to provide the best experience possible for our kids.” 

As both districts continue the search for solutions, they also combat the issues that arise while they navigate their respective shortages. 

Educators, particularly paraprofessionals

As inflation forces families and individuals to rethink budgets, teachers continue to fight for better compensation. 

In Colorado, teacher pay is notoriously low. In fact, it is the lowest in the country, according to the Economy Policy Institute. 

Colorado ranks last in teacher pay as educators make 35.9 percent less than their “nonteacher college-educated counterparts,” according to EPI’s research. 

Meanwhile, neighboring Wyoming has the second-best numbers at 4 percent below non-teacher compensation. At HSD2, salaries for paraprofessionals range between $14.56 – $24.19 an hour, or $29,160 – $48,380 per year.

Birhanzel said HSD2 has retained its highest number of teachers year-over-year at 85 percent, but knows educators will flock elsewhere if salaries remain low. 

“It absolutely is [an issue],” Birhanzel said in response to a question of  how many teachers are affected by low pay. “We have to address the pay and we have to do things differently. What’s worked for the past 50 years we can’t do that anymore. The world is changing and inflation is killing us right now. If you’re a para with a family and have to pay rent and buy gas to go anywhere, you’re probably working three jobs.”

That was the case for Monica Peeler. 

Peeler, a Title 1 reading teacher at Grant Elementary School and Vice President of the Colorado Springs Education Association, the teachers union, said she worked a part-time job to supplement her salary. 

“It was exhausting,” Peeler said. “I opted not to do that this year, but I know the teachers who are doing that now have said they’re tired.” 

On weekdays, about four times a week, following her day at Grant, Peeler would work an additional 1-3 hours as a private tutor. 

“I’ve done a variety of part-time jobs over the years,” Peeler said. “I’ve worked in retail, food, home consulting and other work. It’s varied from year to year.”  

Devra Ashby, Chief Communications Officer at D11, said the districts are developing ways to improve teachers’ compensation. 

“We’re competing with surrounding states that pay teachers more than what we do in Colorado,” Ashby said. “We’re fighting to get teachers into Colorado. You look at the cost of living in Wyoming compared to Colorado, you can’t live on a teacher’s salary in Boulder, Vail or Aspen or any of those areas. If you go to Wyoming, you can stretch your dollar a lot more.” 

Ashby said the District 11 school board has worked to alleviate some teacher’s financial burdens. 

“Our board put into action two significant one-time funding payments, one in November (4 percent salary) and one in March (also 4 percent) this year,” Ashby said. “They’re also talking about excess fund balance that would help with compensation. This is still being discussed.” 

Birhanzel said HSD2 has given “formidable raises” since 2018. The district has provided annual raises between 2 and 6 percent from 2018-19 and 2021-2022. 

The exception was 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic where staff received a $1,000 stipend. 

Although it’s a positive step, Birhanzel said the districts realize educators require more.

“We’re looking at what can we do midyear and what we can do to alleviate some of that hardship that folks are facing,” Birhanzel said. “We have to look at our numbers, student count, our budget. But as soon as we have money freed up and identified our priority is to [give that back] to our staff.”

Transportation and missing the fun 

While Colorado does not require school districts provide transportation for students, Birhanzel said, “from our perspective, transportation is required for most students in this district.” 

However, finding drivers remains difficult. As of Aug. 26, Harrison School District 2 had 22 openings for bus drivers. 

Even if they filled those positions swiftly, training and other requirements would prevent drivers from working for several weeks. 

“Before they can get on the road, they have to be in training for one to two months,” Birhanzel said. “If we hired you today, you can’t drive for us for two months. Our transportation director and our assistant director were driving routes when someone was sick because we were that close to being short [of drivers].” 

Pay also hinders the district from retaining some drivers. Other businesses offer drivers twice as much as they earn at HSD2. 

This makes it difficult for schools to keep bus drivers. 

“This year, we’ve had a few drivers quit because they’re going to drive for a commercial company and make $20 an hour more than what they made here,” Birhanzel said. “There’s no way as a school district that we can compete with that.”

Christine O’Brien, HSD2 public information officer, added: “We used to have some partners who did off-campus learning opportunities and we’re no longer able to take our students to those facilities. Those partners would come into our school. We used to have buses that would go to the [Colorado Springs] Conservatory, but we can’t do that anymore because we need those buses. Now, the Conservatory comes to our school and provides those services.” 

As drivers leave and are not replaced, students face the consequences. Field trips to the zoo, Cave of the Winds and other locations have been curtailed. 

“If a kindergartner previously went to two or three field trips,” Birhanzel said, “now, they have maybe one field trip per year.” 

The faculty is attempting to create a field-trip environment without leaving campus by having educational events held on campus rather than in the community.  

But O’Brien and Birhanzel both understand the programs often don’t match the real world experiences.

“This has made us figure out ways to get really creative to provide those opportunities in some form to our kids,” O’Brien said. “We still try to provide that programming, but it was easier in the past when we still had that delivery model.” 

PS_082322 School staff shortage SEEX photos by Bryan Oller 2 copy 2.jpg

Elie Gibbs, a custodial worker at Mitchell High School for six years, helps break down the school cafeteria near the end of the lunch break.

You have to keep it clean 

At the eleventh hour, prior to the start of school this year, Ashby said custodial and maintenance staff managed to have the buildings prepped for the first day of classes at Mitchell.  

“It was tough at Mitchell but this is across the district,” Ashby said. “We’re having a hard time keeping up with what we need to keep up with.” 

Ashby said much of the custodial and maintenance staff have worked overtime to ensure schools have clean and functional facilities and even had others help. 

“They got Mitchell ready with some partners in the area as well as other building maintenance teams to get it all done,” Ashby said. “It was ready for the school year, but it was tough.” 

As of Aug. 26, D11.org listed job openings for 40 service/maintenance workers. 

Ashby said the district hopes to get work done by potentially contracting out some of the maintenance required in District 11. 

“That’s still a conversation that’s in the works and I don’t think anything has been signed,” Ashby said. “I do know that was a conversation that has been brought forward to the board. If we can’t get the help where necessary, we’re going to need some support staff from outside the district.”

As they wrangle maintenance workers, Ashby said District 11 hopes to keep increasing its student count. 

“Loose numbers show there’s an increase in enrollment,” Ashby said, but D11 still wants more students. 

Ashby said Michael Gaal, the D11 superintendent, plans to assist the school board as they develop methods to increase enrollment. 

“[Gaal] wants to clear the waitlist for preschool,” Ashby said. “Right now, we have free preschool for all D11 residents who have kids who aren’t 5 by Oct. 1. We have a lot of preschools that have waiting lists. So, it doesn’t make sense to have a waitlist while we’re a declining enrollment district. 

“There’s a push to clear the waitlist by creating more spaces and getting preschool teachers in so we can open more spots where the demand is.”

The district continues to lose students at “transitional phases” such as elementary to middle school (fifth to sixth grade) and middle to high school (eighth to ninth grade). District 11 hopes to create “more robust and exciting options” for students to keep them in district and maintain a high student count. Student enrollment drives school funding.

One program, “academic masterplan,” will create pathways for

elementary students. 

“It’s dual-language enrollment and dual-language immersion programs that go from elementary through high school,” Ashby said. “That way, students can be biliterate and bilingual by the time they finish high school. We started that last year at Rogers Elementary School.”

Next year at Howard Elementary School, District 11 plans to launch an outdoor education school, which runs from elementary through high school and allows students to learn various lessons while doing so outdoors. 

“They’ll be learning math, but they’ll be doing so with a focus on outdoor education,” Ashby said. “Eventually we want to be able to say to parents in the Southeast that you may not have a STEM pathway in your area, but we’ll put you on a bus and put you on a STEM pathway. We’ll get there, but that is a long-term plan.” 

Hoping for the best

Teachers’ pay is a concern throughout the country, the state of Colorado and local districts. It is an issue that is not going to go away any time soon.,

Previously, Peeler used her money to purchase school items for students, but stopped years ago because she could no longer afford it. 

“I’m going to use my compensation to live, to have a home, to have food and put clothes on my back,” Peeler said. “I have not done that this year and have not done that in many years.”

Peeler said every educator’s situation is different.

But Peeler knows that Colorado’s sad rank of 50th in the nation among teacher pay isn’t acceptable. 

“[A solution] should look like a teacher can buy home in the community they work or afford rent in their community,” Peeler said. “A teacher should only have one job of teaching and not have a part-time job or two to supplement our income.” 

Reporter

Marcus Hill is a reporter for the Southeast Express and Schriever Sentinel. He graduated from Colorado State University-Pueblo in 2012 with a degree in Mass Communication.