Hot Sheet

Rural schools aim to get on the radar of the General Assembly

Author: Dan Njegomir - January 4, 2017 - Updated: June 6, 2017

Better pay and more funding in general are at the top of the list whenever public education lobbies the legislature. And nowhere are those concerns more acute than in Colorado’s small-town schools. A couple of recent reports by the state’s community news media highlighted the needs as well as some efforts to address them.

The Elbert County News profiles Elizabeth School District Superintendent Douglas Bissonette’s quest for pay equity between rural public schoolteachers and those teaching in Colorado’s metropolitan areas. Right now, the pay disparity is so lopsided that Bissonette says his district has lost 30 percent of its teachers in the past four years. Reports the News:

The high attrition rate in Elizabeth led the district to commission a study by Mountain States Employers Council over a two-year period. Exit surveys were done with all departing employees to find the main reasons they were leaving. At the top of the list: the relatively low salaries for teachers in Elizabeth compared to other area districts.

And this:

Bissonette has found that his district is not alone in its struggle. He’s discovered a large disparity between salaries in the rural schools and compensation for the cost of living, with 74 percent of rural district and small school salaries averaging in the bottom 10 percent of the state.

Bissonette has since launched a crusade of sorts. The News says he compiled extensive documentation and on Dec. 9 delivered a PowerPoint presentation on his findings at the Colorado Association of School Boards Convention. He also has taken his show on the road elsewhere around the state. His ultimate goal?

His mission has caught the attention of the state Legislature, and while he didn’t reveal specifics, one legislator has taken a particular interest in the project. Bissonette hopes the attention brought to the issue will result in solutions to adjust the salaries of rural and small-school teachers.

Meanwhile, the Sterling Journal-Advocate reported the other day on an effort by a lawmaker from another rural clime, Republican state Rep. Jon Becker, of Fort Morgan, to take up the cause of school funding on a broader scale. Becker says he will resuscitate a proposal he championed unsuccessfully in the legislature last year:

Becker’s solution: Re-direct Colorado Lottery money to public school districts until they’ve caught up with the funding they lost during the 2008 recession. He understands that the parks-and-recreation crowd will object, but he sees the move as necessary if Colorado ever hopes to bring public education back up to par. He introduced a bill in the last legislative session that would have referred such a question to the voters, but it ended up going nowhere.

Key public education stakeholders like the lobbies representing school administrators as well as school boards balked at his bill, but he says that won’t deter him from trying again:

“I’m going to keep putting it forward until we get this question referred to the voters, or until someone tells me why it’s not a good idea,” he said. “I challenge the teachers’ union, CASB and CASE to tell my why this is not a good idea.”

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is a blogger and opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.

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