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Schools look to voters for assistance

Lack of competitive salaries makes it difficult to find and keep teachers

Christine Metz

— When Kristine Lance was looking for a teaching job in June, her first offer came from the Steamboat Springs School District.

She took it a decision that turned out to be lucky for the district, but unlucky for her.

As a fresh college graduate in Michigan, Lance applied for teaching positions all over the Untied States and accepted her first offer, a eighth-grade math teaching position in Steamboat Springs. She stuck with that decision, even as offers rolled in throughout the summer, most much higher than the $25,900 Steamboat offers to beginning teachers.

With a math degree, Lance is a hot commodity in a national school system suffering from baby boomers retiring and an economy offering high paying positions for math and science majors. Lance’s highest offer came from California for a teaching position starting at $42,000.

Lance, who commutes daily from Oak Creek, said she loves Steamboat and her job, but cannot afford to live here. She said she has plans to move to a higher paying school district after the school year finishes.

“I love it here, but I don’t see myself being here for more than a year. I can’t afford to live here. I don’t even see how I can make it through this year. There are a lot of other jobs out there. I am realizing that now,” Lance said.

For the district, Lance’s plight is not uncommon. And, its uncompetitive salaries are the reason why it is putting the Cost of Living Adjustment issue on November’s ballot.

The school district is asking voters to approve an increase in property taxes to bring in an extra $773,000 for salaries and benefits to retain and attract teachers and staff.

“For the last couple of years, we have had teachers who are retiring and special staff who have started to retire. So, we have been having to go out and replace those retirees with new teachers and support staff,” Superintendent Cyndy Simms said. “And, teachers look at our salary schedule and want to work where they can start at $30,000.”

“We’re not competitive,” she said.

Steamboat is one of seven school districts in the state that are asking voters to approve a cost of living adjustment that would be implemented into its annual budget, Vody Herrmann of the state’s school finance department said.

With the passage of state legislation pushed by an Eagle County citizen’s group and sponsored by state Rep. Al White (R-Winter Park), these districts, mostly in mountain ski towns, can incorporate into their budgets the increase in cost of living.

When the state first established its mandatory finance formula for all public schools in 1994, it set Steamboat’s cost of living factor at 1.25 based on all state school districts. Although the cost of living has steadily increased over the last seven years, the state has gradually upped Steamboat’s factor by only one hundredth of a point to 1.261.

With the lobbing of the Eagle County citizen’s group, the state re-evaluated the cost of living for every district throughout the state and determined that Steamboat’s cost of living had actually gone up to 1.36.

Although the state acknowledged the cost of living increased in some districts, it did not automatically incorporate those numbers into the finance formula.

Steamboat is one of a handful of schools throughout Colorado that is almost entirely self-funded through local taxes, receiving few dollars from the state; therefore, an increase in the cost of living would require no state funds. But for many other schools, the state would have to pick up the difference, which White said would be close to a $130 million to $140 million problem statewide.

“State Legislature didn’t have the political will to fund it,” White said. “They never considered it.”

Because the state is not providing the funds for COLA, districts can only incorporate it into their budgets through an increase in property taxes, something the state requires voters to approve.

Without COLA, the school district would be collecting 20.7 mills, a drop from 27.2 mills collected last year. Even if voters approved the referendum that would set taxes at 22.2 mills, taxpayers would be paying less than last year’s rate.

If COLA was approved, a residential property valued at $300,000, would be paying $609.72, which is $41.45 higher than the taxes collected without COLA. Both payments are lower than the $794.87 that was collected last year on a $300,000 property at the 27.2 mill rate.

On a commercial property valued at $300,000, the tax increase would mean a cost of $1,932 and without the increase it would come to $1,801.

Regardless of the COLA referendum, property taxes will most likely go down because the district’s total assessed property values increased to $510 million from last year’s $382 million. Reassessed every two years, the district’s sharp rise in total property value can be contributed to recent development like the areas of Grand Summit and Storm Mountain Reservoir.

The increase in assessed property value means that while the average homeowners’ property value might have slightly gone up they still have a smaller piece of the district’s tax burden to share. That means a decrease in property taxes.

Because property taxes are going down, White said that the time was right to ask communities to support COLA.

“You can put it on any year, but this is a reassessment year. There’s a jump in peoples’ property taxes, in most cases they go down,” White said. “As a result, (COLA) is more sellable.”

White said it is not written into legislative language that the COLA adjustment be used for increasing teacher and staff salaries but it is intended to do just that.

For a district whose teacher salaries are below the state and national average, COLA is an opportunity to bring Steamboat back into a competitive range as teaching positions become harder to fill.

“A national teacher shortage is already being felt in Steamboat, but will be felt even more in the next five years. We want to make sure salaries are even more competitive so when that shortage does hit, it won’t hit the community as hard as it could,” Mike Smith, president of Steamboat’s education association said.

But right now, Steamboat is far from competitive as its starting teacher salary at $25,900 is $7,000 below the national average. Along the Front Range starting teacher salaries have steadily increased to around $30,000.

Simms said the district has fallen behind the state and national average partly because of the state’s set finance formula, which was designed to bring equity into the public school system. Three factors in the finance formula, which as a rule of thumb sets aside 80 percent of the budget for staffing, contributed to the decline, Simms said.

Although the cost of living factor has given the district fewer dollars in comparison to other district, Simms said a steady and potential declining enrollment, which is the base number for the finance formula, has also provided less money for the district.

Simms said that schools with population growth, like those on the Front Range, have only a slight increase in their operating cost for expenses like busing, hiring additional teachers or adding new facilities. That means a large portion of the increased money from enrollment can be used towards enhancing teacher and staff salaries.

When the finance formula was enacted in 1993, the district was one of 12 in the state to be operating at a higher amount than what the budget provided.

Steamboat’s difference was $1,071,398.21. Though that number continues to be added into the finance formula annually, it is not adjusted by inflation. That means comparatively, the district’s budget is diminishing every year.

“$1.07 million is a big part of the budget,” Simms said. “That’s 10 percent of the budget that doesn’t get adjusted.”

Although the school district is pulling in more money than the budget allocates from the city’s half-cent sales tax, Simms said those funds could not be put aside for increasing the district’s teaching and staff salaries.

The city’s sales tax is not long term with a 8-year sunset period ending 2009. This makes it difficult, Simms said, for the district to use this money for long-term salary scales.

Simms said with the set finance formula, the approval of November’s ballot is the only way the district can increase teaching and staff salaries.

“We just have to go back again next year,” Simms said if November’s referendum does not get approved.

For teachers like Lance, next year will be too late.

To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com


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