Bill to expand Colorado rural teacher program is in trouble

Author: Marianne Goodland - April 30, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

(Photo by benkrut, istockphoto(

Rural school advocates and Democratic lawmakers Monday are hopping mad about a last-minute procedural move that’s keeping a bill intended to address rural educator shortages and that the Senate approved on Friday from going to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 85 would expand a rural teacher program set up through 2016 legislation that was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora and now-Senate President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg, Republican of Sterling.

The 2016 bill set up 20 slots for teachers who commit to teaching in a rural school district for three years, with a guarantee that the district, with state dollars, would cover the costs of their last semester of college.

While the program has been helpful, it doesn’t address another problem rural school districts face: The need for nurses, school psychologists, speech-language pathologists and other special service educators. Senate Bill 85, the new measure, would expand the program to as many as 60 educators, including those special service staff, not just teachers.

Grant Schmitt, superintendent of the Hanover School District in eastern El Paso County, points to a problem he had last year: He needed a social worker for his district. He told Colorado Politics that he had one applicant for the position, and hired her. But she’s leaving at the end of this school year because she can get into a loan forgiveness program in another school district, and “I can’t compete” with that, he said.

“I can recruit for a social worker,” he said, “but I can’t retain one. If I had the stipend, we could repay her.”

Schmitt said the need for a social worker is most acute for the students who live on the Fort Carson Army Base, on the western edge of the school district. His students have parents who are being deployed to Afghanistan or Germany, and need social services support for coping with those long absences, he said.

Michelle Murphy, head of the state’s Rural School Alliance, said SB 85 is among the alliance’s top legislative priorities for 2018; the measure was requested by the rural school districts. The shortage of social service staff, including those who work with special education students, is critical in rural school districts, she said. In some districts, those shortages are worse than the teacher shortages.

And those services are also required by federal law, she pointed out.

The bill as introduced included special services educators (the terminology for psychologists, nurses, etc.) as well as making those slots available for Colorado BOCES, the board of cooperative education services system that shares services and staff among rural school districts.

Sonnenberg insisted that the BOCES piece come out of the bill when it was in the Senate; fellow Republican Sen. Beth Martinez-Humenik of Thornton also won approval for an amendment to take out the special services portion.

When the bill reached the House, sponsor Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango added back in the special services language only, recognizing that adding the BOCES would doom the bill to failure when it got back to the Senate.

All seemed well and fine on Friday when the bill came back to the Senate. The vote was 31-3 to approve the House amendments, including yes votes from Martinez Humenik and Sonnenberg. He told Colorado Politics he was working on something else and failed to notice how the bill was changed.

The amended bill was re-adopted by the Senate on a 25-9 vote, including support from Martinez Humenik. From there, it should have headed off to the governor’s desk.

But on Monday, according to Todd, Sonnenberg directed the Senate Republicans to revote to kill the bill. Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial made a motion to reconsider the Senate’s Friday vote, which could take place as early as Tuesday.

Todd was in tears Monday when she described what happened to the bill.

“I’m committed to all kids, whether they’re rural or urban,” she said, adding that “some children need additional support” that teachers just cannot provide, whether for a child who is deaf, or need medication administered, or is learning disabled and needs extra help.

“Why would you shortchange a child?” she said. “How many teachers would go to a rural school district if they know there aren’t support services?”

Sonnenberg told Colorado Politics Monday that he wants to see Senate Bill 85 address the problem that the original 2016 legislation addressed: lack of teachers in rural school districts.

“The way the House did the bill, it encompasses everyone,” he said, “including the guy who mows the lawn, to the cook to anyone else. I want to focus on teachers and that’s what we did in the Senate. We set aside the money for teachers, not the specialists in BOCES. If the school wants to do that, so be it. I want the money to go to teachers. That’s why we need to fix it in the Senate.”

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.