What are teachers (and education) worth?: Voters in Cortez School District Re-1 will decide that this fall

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Supporters of ballot question 4a in Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 are seeking a mill-levy increase to improve teacher salaries and school safety. Courtesy photo

Think about the role of teachers in your life. Was there someone who inspired you, challenged you, supported you, and helped you become the person you are now? Many of us do remember a teacher who became that special person for us.

Taxes are used to fund schools – including paying teachers, principals, bus drivers and coaches. What would life be without this important aspect of our community life? Educators, administrators and students in Cortez really don’t want to find this out, so they are organizing in support of a mill levy. Interested parties formed a committee called For Our Kids’ Future, which had a booth at the Sept. 21 Cortez Farmers Market.

This fall, voters in Cortez school district Re-1 will have a chance to support their schools and teachers by voting in favor of ballot measure 4a.

Times have been tough in the school district, with teacher salaries below those in neighboring districts, and turnover rates above state averages. Last year the district lost 29 teachers.

The Re-1 board has proposed another mill levy on property taxes, with the initiative generating a projected $2,882,787, to be used for teacher salaries and school safety.

“We are beyond dire straits,” said Sherri Wright, school board president. “If this does not pass it will hurt kids. If it passes, this will allow us to lift people up.”

The relationship between school funding, community development and ensuing prosperity has been part and parcel of the United States for several hundred years. Only recently have communities begun to balk at what have been perceived as higher costs with fewer results, resulting in tax measures for education being rejected by voters.

Amendment 73, a ballot initiative to the Colorado constitution which would have provided funding to schools, failed to pass in 2018. This means local communities have to foot the bill for their own schools, without additional state support.

Cortez voters rejected a mill levy for the Re-1 school district in 2017, which was slated to raise monies for transportation, an increase in salaries, and security. The vote was 54 percent (2435) against, and 46 percent (2072) for. Voter feedback on their refusal to approve a raise in property taxes centered on a lack of understanding of specifically what monies would be used for.

This year, however, the Re-1 school board has decided to return to the voters with another mill levy proposal, hoping to convince more voters that an increase in property taxes will be worth the educational benefits the money raised will pay for.

The tax increases, per $100,000 value, would be $3 a month for residential property and $12.08 for commercial.

Agricultural properties are taxed per acre, according to whether or not they are utilized for grazing, dry land, flood irrigated, or by sprinkler. Proposed mill levy costs range from an increase of 16 cents per acre a year for grazed land, to 88 cents per acre a year for flood-irrigated land.

The current school board responded to the failure of the mill levy in 2017 by reallocating the proposed funding request this time around. Superintendent Lori Haukeness said that after the last mill levy failed, the board met with community members to hear citizens’ concerns – primarily their uncertainty about what the monies would be used for.

She said this time “we have set up a special fund so that everything raised will go to staff salaries, custodial, paraprofessionals, maintenance, and SRO’s (security resource officers) – not the upper level. Our principals, superintendent and administration officers will not be getting raises.”

The board has also withdrawn the request for transportation funding – a controversial piece of the last mill levy – because the district was able to purchase new buses with other funds – although monies from the levy will be used to increase bus driver salaries.

Free public education for all was an innovative idea beginning before the founding of the United States, with the first public school established in Massachusetts in 1635. As the U.S. became larger and more organized, leaders committed to public education by establishing a system in which property taxes were used to fund public education.

Throughout the 1700s, public school attendance was limited to boys, but in the 1800s public schools opened to girls, along with compulsory attendance laws, which by 1918 were in effect in all 48 states.

In the rural West, the dedication to free public education was a key component of early settlement, with schools built and even sharing space with the first amenities in a community, such as post offices, grocery stores, roads and irrigation ditches.

The first school in Montezuma County was built in Mancos in 1877. Cortez built its first school on S. Linden St. in 1887, with Dolores’ school constructed in 1895. These early schools sprouted up quickly after the first settlers arrived, and consisted of one or two rooms, often with dirt floors, and one or two dedicated teachers. Elementary and high school facilities, classes and teachers were often combined. Students in these early schools ranged in age from 6 to 22, while one of the first teachers in Mancos was 16.

According to Ira Freeman, writing about Cortez’s school in 1890 in History of Montezuma County, “School facilities were simple and crude the first few years – there was little taxable property and only meager school funds.”

Times have changed in the 132 years since that first school was built in Cortez. The Re-1 district now serves more than 2,800 students in 10 schools, with one preschool, five elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.

Additionally, there are three charter schools: Battlerock Charter School, Children’s Kiva Montessori School, and the Southwest Open School. The student population consists of 22 percent Latino, 49 percent Caucasian and 29 percent Native American.

Salaries

Re-1 ranks at the bottom in terms of teacher pay, with the lowest entry salary of the 30 largest school districts in Colorado. Starting salaries for new teachers in the district begin at $31,557 for someone with a bachelor’s degree, and $35,781for someone with a master’s. These salaries are lower than those in Mancos, Dolores, and Shiprock and Aztec, N.M., and in Durango, where beginning salaries are $8500 a year higher.

“The problem that I have right now is that I have zero dollars in my bank account – zero dollars – and I’m getting paid by the school district at the entry pay!” said one Re-1 middle school teacher who asked to be unnamed.

Sherry Noyes, Re-1 board vice president, said that many new teachers realize it’s better off to leave quickly before they get too far in debt.

“There’s nothing to rent under $900 a month or something, and they can’t even afford to stay here for a whole year sometimes,” she said.

Matthew Johnson, a Cortez Middle School teacher, said, “I don’t want to go on government dollars to make it. I don’t want to go on public housing to be able to keep living here. I don’t want to be on food stamps. I WANT to be able to pay for everything out of my pocket and have an independent life – maybe someday have kids, have a family, own property – but you just can’t make these dreams come true on $30 thousand a year.”

Wright agreed. “We are committed to giving our teachers a raise, to give them a chance at a decent living.”

Summers off ?

A common misconception about teachers’ jobs is that they have three months off in the summer. “Well, they don’t. They have to continue their education, and then they’re paying money out to keep their licenses current,’ explained Wright, who is a retired teacher. “I spent my summers getting an M.A. and I spent my nights taking classes so that I could advance and be a better teacher.”

Noyes added, “A lot of teachers go get summer jobs, to supplement their incomes for the rest of the year.” Indeed, any graduate hours earned will increase a teacher’s pay. BA +15 entry level pay is $32,355, +30 is $33,157, and +45 is $33,972. Thus, summers may not necessarily be “off ” and instead can contribute to a teacher’s workload, in hopes of increasing pay or maintaining employment.

Double duty

The low salaries also contribute to higher teacher turnover, which in turn means more work for the teachers who stay.

“We have to work very hard,” said Laurie Austin, a sixth-grade middle school ESS (Exceptional Student Services) teacher who has been in the district for 17 years. “Right now, I’m covering two jobs, because no one is applying for teacher jobs here in Cortez.”

Wright agreed, saying, “Everyone is doing at least five jobs.”

At press time, the Re-1 district had 11 job openings.

All members of the school board confirmed that sometimes teachers leave in the middle of the term. Noyes said, “They think, ‘I’ve got to get out of here now, there’s a job opportunity and they’ll take me, OK, I’m going now – I’m done here’.”

Cody Childers is a seventh-grade language arts teacher who also is doing double duty as a computer sciences teacher for sixth, seventh and eight grades. “We have a revolving door at our schools,” he said.

He can handle the work because he is young and likes computers, but said that the only reason he hasn’t left (yet) after three years is because of the students. “They’re some of the most creative, passionate humans I’ve ever met in my life and they need someone who sticks around, who supports them.”

He mentioned the district lost a “passionate and engaged” teacher this year to Mancos, because Mancos paid better and had a four-day work week.“We lost her to a more competitive school district,” he said, “and my kids are the ones who lose in that situation. They’re the ones who are always going to lose when we cannot keep people around.”

Austin agreed. “We can’t keep the best,” she said.

Turnover impacts the students, she said, and also is a drain on resources and relationships, because every year they have to train new teachers.

“Getting new people on our team every year – new teachers every year – means we have to create relationships with these people,” Austin said, “and then it’s hard when we suddenly find out that they’re going.”

Wright continued, “we train them and then they leave, and then the next year we have to train new ones again.”

“We are just grateful for the ones that stay and keep plugging away day by day,” Noyes said.

The turnover rate, which has been consistently above 20 percent for years, is higher than state averages. “We lost 29 teachers between 2018 to 2019, around 24 percent,” said Lance McDaniel, board director for District A. “The state average hovers between 15 and 18 percent.”

According to Wright, another repercussion of the low salaries and high turnover rates is that they can keep people from moving to the area. She has heard of some people who have decided against moving to Cortez because they are concerned about the quality of education – even though the district’s test scores are up. Haukeness has heard of doctors who refused positions at the hospital in Cortez because of the situation in the schools.

Excellent school systems attract professionals, and higher salaries mean more money can be spent in local businesses. In a nutshell, the low salaries and high turnover don’t bode well for those looking to relocate to the area, or for locals who hope to promote community development and economic sustainability.

If the ballot measure passes, part of the mill-levy monies, up to $250,000, will be used for school safety. Haukeness said there is a good safety program being developed. The funds will be used to have law enforcement officers in place at high-school and middle-school after-hours events, both academic and athletic.

School resource officers will receive additional funding, and half-time school safety specialists will be hired to conduct drills, safety trainings, facilities inspections and communication systems to notify parents and community residents in case of emergencies.

Marijuana money

A question often asked by citizens is, what about the marijuana money?

“If we had a dollar for every time someone mentions the marijuana funds, we wouldn’t have to ask for the mill levy!” Noyes exclaimed.

Colorado’s retail marijuana excise tax taxes the first sale of marijuana at a rate of 15 percent, for all types of marijuana sold. “We do not get marijuana money!” Wright said. “We can write a grant and ask for a new roof or a new heater or something, but it’s not for salaries.”

An excise tax is a tax separate and in addition to a sales tax. Total monies raised by marijuana, through taxes, licenses and fee revenue in 2019 through August were $193,587,968. However, just over $6 million of that is from the excise tax.

In the fiscal year 2017-18, the first $40 million collected from the marijuana excise tax was distributed to the Public School Capital Construction Assistance Fund administered by the Colorado Department of Education’s Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program. This is only utilized for funding build-outs, such as the new Montezuma-Cortez High School, and in order to receive the monies, the communities must submit a proposal. Anything in excess of $40 million is transferred to the Public School Fund, with those monies being allocated by the Colorado Joint Budget Committee.

In 2017, some of the programs funded included the School Health Professionals Grant Program, the Early Literacy Competitive Grant Program, the School Bullying Prevention and Education Program, and the Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re- Engagement. Only a small portion of the funds are allocated to local municipalities and counties to use as they see fit.

“That’s what people need to understand,” Wright said. “They see the new buildings and ask, ‘Why don’t they spend that money on salaries?’ But we can’t use the marijuana money for salaries.”

Noyes agreed that people aren’t clear on what the retail marijuana excise tax is really about. “They’ve been told over and over it’s for education, but it’s only for capital expenses.”

Marijuana tax monies, therefore, are helping education, but as can be seen, these monies are used for buildings or allocated to specific grant programs. Teachers, support staff, coaches, paraprofessionals and bus drivers are not benefitting from the Retail Marijuana Excise Tax.

‘Drastic cuts’

The Re-1 board is responsible for governance and policy-making for the district. The seven members are elected and serve four-year terms in their non-paid positions, working 3-6 hours a week. They are also responsible for adopting the budget for the schools. It was their decision to propose the current mill levy and they hope that this year, the community of Cortez will vote in favor of students and teachers.

What if the mill levy doesn’t pass?

“We don’t know, we’ve already made drastic cuts – even cutting counselors,” said Jack Schuenemeyer, director for District B. He said his grandchild cannot get in to see a school counselor because there are not enough to serve the student body.

“We don’t want to go there,” agreed Noyes, explaining that the board members are doing their best to stay positive and generate the interest and information necessary to pass the levy.

Wright worried that if it does not pass it will hurt kids. “We could go to larger classes, or lose the sports programs, or lose transportation – I don’t know. It has to pass,” she said.

Childers expressed his passion for teaching when he spoke about why he is going to vote yes on 4a: “I want to make sure that my students have good futures and good lives and successes and I want them to go into the fields that they feel their passion about and I want them to know about these fields, and I want to support them. I can’t do that if teachers are leaving every single year.”

For more information about For Our Kid’s Future contact cortezjack@q.com, or check out For Our Kids’ Future Facebook page: facebook.com/Fourourkidsfuturemc

Detailed information about the Montezuma Cortez Re-1 school district, including information on teacher salaries, board duties, and school budgets can be found at https://www.cortez.k12.co.us/

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