Aspen School board candidates talk teacher pay (Part 2 in a series)
October 9, 2017
Editor's note: The election for three open seats on the Board of Eduction for the Aspen School District is Nov. 7, with a candidates forum scheduled 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Seminar Room at Aspen High School.
The Aspen Times this week is publishing a five-part questionnaire with answers from the five candidates — incumbents Margeaux Johansson, Susan Marolt and Dwayne Romero, and challengers Jonathan Nickell and Susan Zimet.
A number of teachers at the Aspen School District have noted that their pay is not adequate enough to live in the valley and support a family. As a board member, what can you do specifically to address this?
As a board member, one of my top priorities is to attract and retain talented teachers. This has long been a goal of the district. We currently provide a teacher bus, reduced rates at the preschool Cottage, annual health fairs, high-quality health insurance, etc. In my discussions with district staff, however, the two most important issues in attracting and retaining staff are adequate salaries and affordable housing. Currently, about 82 percent of the district's budget goes to faculty and staff's salaries and benefits. And while historically teacher retention has been well above national averages, a stark fact of public education in our state is that Colorado is ranked 42nd in public funding out of the 50 states. Local funding that currently helps fill the gap in Aspen includes the 0.3 percent city of Aspen sales tax that has contributed approximately $2 million a year, the Snowmass Village real estate tax that will provide $500,000 a year and fundraising efforts by the Aspen Education Foundation that provide approximately $400,000 a year. It is my goal to continue our search for additional local funding sources in order to ensure that we can provide adequate salaries to our extremely dedicated staff.
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Another crucial aspect to retaining teachers is affordable housing. I, along with my fellow board members, am exploring various opportunities to expand the district's housing stock, which may include the development of additional units on the district's West Ranch property. I am committed to attracting and retaining quality teachers for our students and look forward to continuing to develop creative solutions to these issues.
This is a critical issue. Our teachers are the nuts and bolts of our district. We frequently hear from students that the most important part of their time in our schools was a relationship with a teacher. I believe that, because of our talented and passionate teaching staff, our school community is unique in its ability to foster these strong relationships. As a board, we will continue to work to secure additional funding for our district in order to provide higher teacher salaries. Our community has generously supported local fiscal options to offset unpredictable state funding. We are currently revising the salary schedule to provide more competitive and consistent salaries for all of our teachers. It is important to continue working on this schedule and to innovatively seek more funding with which to pay our valuable staff. Our valley is a challenging place to live and work, particularly because of housing. We continuously look for options for the district to obtain and provide more district housing for staff. We are currently exploring options to both purchase and build additional staff housing. We are also seeking ways to partner with other entities in our district to build or purchase additional housing. We are conversing with the town of Snowmass Village regarding the availability of their housing for our teachers. We work with Aspen Education Foundation to find additional funding for our teachers. We must continue to attract and retain excellent and talented staff and this depends on adequate pay and affordable housing.
I would like to first state that having an outstanding organizational climate and culture is the most important thing we need to give teachers; it is the No. 1 reason teachers leave organizations. Teachers need to know they are respected and valued by administrators, parents, students and the community and are empowered to deliver great teaching in the classroom, minimizing bureaucracy. Great culture and climate leads to great results for our students, and these are not stated goals of the Board of Education (BOE) or superintendent.
Salary and cost of living are impacted by providing adequate employee housing and oversight of the budget and personnel policies.
The BOE and administration have repeatedly approved the annual budget and personnel policy as "fully in compliance," without adequately funding teacher salaries. The average teacher salary in Aspen from 2011-12 to 2016-17 has only increased $700, from $57,587 to $58,287. Boulder's average increased $14,217 and an experienced teacher will earn an estimated $32,978 more. The BOE and administration have claimed that this is due to lack of available funds. However, spending in Aspen has increased over $5 million, $2.1 million on salaries. Based on the average pay and number of teachers from the Colorado Department of Education, salary to teachers only increased $135,000. Aspen per-pupil spending figures from 2011-12 to 2015-16 increased $2,907 versus $852 in Boulder. Simply put, we are spending more, just not on our teachers. If elected, I will work to reverse this trend. We cannot continue to say we place a high priority on great teachers and teaching, without backing up words with actions.
Regarding housing, there are currently over 20 teachers on the waiting list for employee housing, and it is creating turnover issues. Neither the BOE or administration have a clear picture of the long-term housing needs, or a long-term plan to solve the problem. If elected, I will make it a priority to not only develop the current options to their full potential, but more importantly, develop a clear long-term plan to address the housing needs of our teachers.
One of our most important goals for the school district is to attract and retain high-quality teachers. In order to realize this goal, we must 1) improve the salary schedule for our teachers, and 2) broaden the inventory of housing options and opportunities available for our teachers.
The school board is actively and aggressively pursuing both of these initiatives.
On the salary front, the school district administration, in concert with the Aspen Education Association (AEA, the union in place to represent our teachers for employer/employee matters at the district) are working to redesign a salary schedule that is more competitive — that is, higher starting salaries, the potential for stronger increases over time and rewards for a tenure of excellent performance. The proposed salary schedule is also more aligned with professional development and continuing education pursuits and is more transparent for all to see and understand. The proposed schedule is currently being reviewed and improved through a series of work sessions with teachers at all school buildings. The goal is to have this new salary schedule ultimately prepared and approved later this school year.
Just as important, we are also working on broadening and increasing the portfolio of housing available for our teachers. As we all know, access to affordable/attainable housing is equally important to earning a competitive wage. Time and time again the community has expressed its desire to retain a high-quality teacher cadre. Thus, our school district leadership is energized and focused on adding to our housing inventory. Our strongest pursuit at the moment is the potential increase of residences at our West Ranch neighborhood (just downvalley from the Woody Creek area).
There is no clearer statement of discontent than to vote with one's feet. Last year 25 of our teachers left; that works out to an annual teacher turnover rate of 17.5 percent. This board is clearly doing a lot wrong when it comes to teacher retention.
Increasing teacher pay is a big part of the answer. This board has failed to make sure that our teachers are well paid and has instead devoted resources to administrative and overhead expenses that do not show up in the classroom.
But there are other aspects of teacher development and retention that this board has been ignoring. We've got to invest in quality continuing education in order to keep good teachers. We want them to feel that the Aspen School District is a great place for teachers to develop professionally.
And then there's housing. It is my observation from 26 years of living in Aspen that once an organization takes on the mandate of housing its workforce, then that issue tends to crowd out everything else. To attend a school board meeting is to observe that considerable time is spent on real estate development; surprisingly little time is spent discussing education.
The district now owns and manages 43 residential units. The Aspen school board should organize a subcommittee including housing, real estate and business professionals from the community to advise the board on housing. We can't allow the board's time to be dominated by real estate development. The focus of the Aspen School Board should be education.