Aspen school board questions part 3: How to pay and house teachers | AspenTimes.com

Aspen school board questions part 3: How to pay and house teachers

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of four questions posed to candidates for two openings on the Aspen School District Board of Education. The candidates’ next answers will appear in the Oct. 28 edition of The Aspen Times. Election Day is Nov. 5; ballots were mailed out last week.

Today’s question: As a board member, how would you see to it that teachers are fairly compensated and properly housed?

Bettina Slusar

Oy. That is the big question, isn’t it? Bottom line, teachers should be our No. 1 priority, and the budget needs to be aligned accordingly. We are in fact a very well-funded district, spending 91% more per student than the average Colorado district. Unfortunately, the budget is a black box filled with spaghetti, and neither the board, the administration nor the finance committee (that failed to meet for two years) have provided any clarity.

1) Where is the money? Given that our administrative team is the same size as that of a substantially larger district like Cherry Creek, I think we need to look at unloading this top-heavy district and putting the staff and money where it counts — where it touches the kids.

2) Look at other, efficiently run districts with appropriate teacher pay, and existing research. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel or spend years on our own, made-up process. Where and how are better aligned districts spending money to get more to flow to the teachers? What does the existing research suggest?

3) Hire an expert. There are educational consultants who spend their careers righting systemic wrongs. Rather than waiting for the new superintendent, I suggest we bring in one of those proven experts to define expectations, develop a plan to get there, and get going.

Housing is an issue not limited to the district. It is a valley-wide crisis. I think that all of the entities that have critical workers (schools, hospitals, emergency workers) need to get together and get creative. Again, look at other areas where this is an issue and see if there are solutions we might work with; Seattle, Silicon Valley, the Berkshires, Cape Cod. Tactically, get our teachers to the top of the lottery system, get them included in the Snowmass Village lottery as key employees. Look at outlying district land (toward independence pass, toward Aspen Village) and fund a teacher-housing complex. Treat this like a boarding school where (free) housing is included with wages or give teachers the option to get paid more and figure out their own housing through the general lottery. If any issue deserves a bond to fund it, this one does. With bonds at historical lows, now is a great time to act.

Jim Pomeroy

I believe that everyone wants to pay teachers more, and I also believe that everyone realizes that there is a need for more housing. How to do both, however, is not going to be easy. It must start with getting better data, and then using creative problem solving and leveraging our strengths to solve these problems.

Regardless of what some of the candidates claim, I have not seen recent data on statewide teacher salaries, combined with the education level matrixes that the Aspen schools use, to determine exactly how our salaries match up with others. Then of course, one must also factor in our cost-of-living index, which is obviously much higher than other places. We need this data to figure out exactly what salary targets the district needs to be shooting for. That then becomes a board responsibility. Once we know what the realities are, it will be the board’s responsibility to set specific salary targets, and then the Board and staff can look at the budget and “back” into that number through a holistic review of the budget.

We are in a similar situation for housing.

The last housing survey was from 11 years ago! We don’t currently know where teachers are living and what they want. The reality is that building in this valley is incredibly expensive, and the school district on its own cannot build its way out of the problem.

If building costs are $500 per square foot, and we want to build ten, 1,000-square-foot condos, that would require spending $5 million! And that’s just to build 10, and we all know we need more than that. In order to really solve our housing needs, we must look to partner with others. We must look to partner with APCHA, the city, the county, and possibly private developers to obtain affordable housing for our teachers.

In my day job working for the city of Aspen Planning and Zoning Department, and having lived in employee housing myself for decades, I know and understand the complexities of the problem, and understand the creative solutions that will be needed to solve this situation. Even though the challenge is great, I know that with fresh thinking, we can solve our housing needs.

Jonathan Nickell

Teachers have the largest impact on student learning, making it critical to have the highest quality teachers in our district. We need to have competitive salaries and housing to attract and retain great teachers.

Currently, our district spends 93 percent more per student than the Colorado average, yet our average teachers’ salaries are only 13 percent above the state average and 21 percent below the highest paying district. Our current $43,000 starting salary is becoming uncompetitive as other districts in Colorado approve $50,000 starting salaries. Experienced teachers can also make up to $18,000 less in Aspen than they would at other districts. Compounding the problem is the high cost of living in Aspen. It is the highest in Colorado, 73 percent higher than the state average, primarily due to the high cost of housing. The combination of these factors is causing us to lose valuable teachers and staff.

Assuring the renewal of the additional funding measures that our community has generously approved is the first step. Second, is to shift spending to teachers’ salaries. Raising average salaries to the same level as Boulder would require about $3 million or re-allocating about 10 percent of our $31 million operating budget. Areas that have the smallest impact on students’ educational environment like operations and administrative costs, should be adjusted first. Reducing spending in these categories to the per-pupil average of other mountain districts like Telluride, Gunnison and Eagle could provide up to $2.2 million for salaries. It is important to note that these are initial ideas and estimates. A detailed plan needs to be created to implement changes in spending in a responsible manner.

ASD has 50 housing units for 220 employees, 143 of which are teachers. However, only 24 of the units are assigned to classroom teachers, and there has been a perpetual wait list to acquire housing. Simply put, we need more housing, and we must set clear targets for the amount of housing we need. Establishing a multi-pronged approach to reaching these goals must be part of our strategic plan. We need to work collaboratively with current affordable-housing organizations and efforts, while continuing to invest in a financially responsible manner as a district to develop enough housing for our teachers and staff. Finally, ASD must be much more transparent about how housing opportunities are offered and prioritized.

Patsy Kurkulis

This is a fair question. The challenge, however, is exactly how do we address these two issues given our finite resources.

First, I am in favor of awarding our great teachers augmented salaries. They deserve it. One place to start this process would be to obtain a better understanding of past budgets, and where and how exactly were all the monies allocated. There is a disconnect here: There seems to be a consensus regarding the interest to increase salaries; however, I am not clear that an effective plan has been created to address this issue. In addition, I would take a top-down approach. I would suggest a reevaluation of our budgetary line-items and make salaries a top priority. I would welcome the opportunity to collectively work with others towards this goal.

Regarding housing, I too am in favor of identifying new and creative solutions for the purposes of creating a larger inventory of affordable housing for our teachers. A unique challenge for our school district is that we do indeed live in an area where the cost of housing can far exceed our teacher’s budgets. As a school district we need to come together with a cohesive, strategic housing plan with both short and long term goals. I would suggest a full assessment of what is available, how are these units currently allocated, and better define new and future housing goals with accountability features. This would a step-by-step, year-by-year process. Affordable housing for every teacher may not be realistic. What is more probable would be to collaborate with all interested entities, including teachers, the city of Aspen, etc, assess achievable goals, and devise a strategic step-by-step plan to address our collective priorities.

Both of these concerns are very important, and I would welcome the opportunity to work towards finding achievable action items to reach the collective goal.

John Galambos

The root of this question is “How do we attract and retain high quality teachers?” All the BOE candidates agree that this should be the top priority for our district. Please go to grassroots.org to hear how we’ve collectively addressed this topic.

In comparison, Aspen teachers make slightly more than other districts. Starting salary for a certified teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $43,000/year. Eagle County is $42,000. Roaring Fork is $39,932. Steamboat is $38,435. You get the picture.

I support a $50,000 starting salary. Our teachers are professionals. As the owner of an architecture firm, I compare it to what I’d pay a recent grad with a degree architecture. To attract top talent I need to offer more than market rate.

We also need to pay for this. There are many moving parts to this discussion (health care, for example) that can’t be fleshed out in 400 words. Yes, we need to take a deep dive into the budget and look for inefficiencies. But we need, as a community, to get more creative in our thinking on how to solve financial issues. For example, I’m not opposed to creating “chaired” departments and positions; much like college professors. My father was known as the “Jolly Professor”; Mr. Jolly created an endowment to attract and retain great professors. Being a public school we carefully need to flesh this idea out. But I will bring creative ideas to the board.

We also need to retain high quality teachers. We all agree that housing is one of the biggest factors to retention. The last time the district dove into this issue was in 2008. Back then, 33% of district employees were “dissatisfied” with their housing. Of those, 39% would consider leaving within two years due to housing. What are these numbers today?

We need to apply our collective creativity to tackle the housing issue. I’ve been talking in this campaign about public/private partnerships. We live in an amazing community. To solve our problems we need to get creative and tap into all the talent and resources this town has to offer. Architects, city of Aspen, Pitkin County, real estate, developers; we need to come together and partner with the District and work this out. This isn’t just a district problem; this is an Aspen community problem.

We need to collaborative leadership in order to attract and retain great teachers. We are better together.

Katy Frisch

Our teachers are the district’s most important assets. I’m thrilled this issue is garnering widespread and dedicated focus. Teachers do the hard work of educating our kids every school day and deserve the best compensation package we can afford. Other school districts with less per student funding somehow manage to provide higher salaries. However, we obviously have constraints. Our special taxes and generous community help contribute to our funding, but it can only go so far.

We have other benefits besides salary that contribute to the compensation package. While PERA retirement benefits are fixed, insurance, paid time off and other areas can be negotiated. What do our teachers and staff want? Are there areas they feel nickel and dimed? Salary is just one aspect of a compensation package to review.

The district can be more fiscally responsible to make the most out of every dollar. Good leadership and financial stewardship can help mitigate these challenges. Our non-salary funds need to be managed stringently through effective policies and procedures. Getting multiple bids on property or bus repairs just make sense. We need to prioritize spending, possibly reshuffling funds according to community input. Hard choices will need to be made, but with an effective strategic planning process we will reach a consensus on where to focus our dollars. I have experience in management and working with local nonprofits doing exactly this.

Housing is a difficult and serious issue that requires engagement of our entire community to implement change. All employers in our valley struggle to find affordable housing for staff. With new projects at Burlingame-III and land banking at BMC West and AABC mini-storage there are opportunities to partner with APCHA and other affordable-housing builders. The district is not going to solve this on its own, but rather as part of the team working to house workers in our valley. Again, difficult decisions need to be made on density, quantity of open space, and height and mass, and the balance of these variables with community values. All solutions require transparency and consistency in awarding housing.

Housing and compensation issues are complex, but not without opportunities for improvement. Neither has simple solutions that can be dictated by the board of education. Instead, we need folks who can bring together the relevant parties to creatively problem solve. I believe I have the experience to be an effective part of the team and humbly ask for your vote.


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