Roger Marolt: Losing our school
A long wait to get seated in a limited number of restaurants to have a meal served cold with minimal service and maximal prices is one thing. The degradation of local public schools is another thing entirely. There is a labor shortage. The cost of living is too high and wages too low to put up with Aspen these days. Did we assume teachers are immune to this?
Thirteen percent of Aspen School District teachers are considering giving up teaching after this school year ends. That’s double the average for Colorado school districts. Another 8% are thinking about teaching in another school district next year. It amounts to 22 familiar faces leading our children’s classrooms exiting before next fall.
We can look at changes taking place in town and country. They can be ignored by forcing ourselves to look up at the mountains and even higher into the brilliant blue skies, if the topography doesn’t work, but when the welfare of children is at stake, we suddenly hear alarms that have been buzzing below the level of powder day hoots and hollers or a JAS festival encore.
If this trend continues, it means the entire teaching staff in our schools will turn over every five years. This is not a fluke. There are a big factors at play that appear to be part of an accelerated path to a long-term trend rather than a one-off event.
Of course, housing is a huge factor. We are in the worst housing crunch for local workers in Aspen’s history. Think about that. There has never been a more difficult time for a working person to live here. And the trend is picking up steam rather than correcting itself. There is no easy fix.
Teaching has never been about the money, perhaps less so in Aspen. Our history of attracting great teachers has been about intangible qualities of life we have been able to deliver — natural beauty, recreational opportunities, social vibrancy, rich culture, education as a core value, strong sense of community, and so on. We have too long taken that enticement for granted. We believed it to be of no cost, a given. Suddenly we see it tied by Gordian knot to the availability of affordable housing.
Even still, the paucity of affordable housing is not the only factor. Now we have inflation eroding the purchasing power of too-low salaries. As if the cost of local housing wasn’t bad enough, now the prices of everything else already extraordinarily locally expensive are rising, too.
Perhaps the local bar and restaurant situation works well enough to illustrate this situation since it is similar in economic structure and we all experienced it once this ski season just ended.
Basically too few workers to serve everyone a dining establishment wants to take care of results in exhausted workers trying to do more than they possibly can. This results in poor service, which leads to customer dissatisfaction that finds expression in nastiness toward the stressed-out workers. The owners try to compensate by raising pay, but that means prices for the food and drinks rise, too. More pay doesn’t help the workers to get more work done, but it does make customers even angrier because now they are paying more for the same poor service. Workers hit a breaking point and quit. High turnover exacerbates the poor service situation for lack of replacement worker experience. Workers feel less camaraderie amid high turnover. It continues getting worse for everyone. I think experts call this a “vicious cycle.”
A similar vicious cycle is building its spin rate in the Aspen School District. Teachers are underpaid. They can’t find housing. Turnover is unacceptably high. If you are a teacher in Aspen today, you face losing your entire current work group five years hence. But, even these factors may not be the hardest to overcome.
Aspen has been passionate for education. This is an incredibly good thing when it comes to funding public education. But we also saw an ugly side of that passion during the dark times of COVID-19. My impression is that teachers were treated terribly here; perhaps not by the majority of parents, but by enough of them misdirecting their passions for education by blaming teachers for the misery and confusion that should have been chalked up to an extended unprecedented tragic event. Many teachers felt they could do no good. Every decision was judged as bad by some contingent of parents. We blew it when we could least afford to. This is going to cost us. We either figure out how pay the huge debt we’ve accrued or lose the quality of our schools.
Roger Marolt understands that our schools are more than a mere thread in the community fabric. They are a seam that binds. Email at email@example.com.