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Cortez schools plan vote on school closures amid ‘critical’ staff shortage

Montezuma-Cortez schools have nearly 50 vacancies as of June 21. (Journal file photo)
District has nearly 50 vacancies, board says

Facing a critical staff shortage in its schools, the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 Board of Education plans to host an emergency meeting Wednesday to “vote to close” Manaugh Elementary.

A news release from the district Monday announced that the Board of Education would meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The district also announced two “informative” meetings leading up to the board meeting.

The first, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Kemper Elementary, 620 E Montezuma Ave., will focus on the possible closure of Manaugh. The news release stated that Manaugh has 18 vacant positions, including core teaching and ESS positions and added that the closure vote was being held in the context of ”staffing and safety concerns.“

Extended School Services are designed to assist individual students who have difficulty in content areas.

The second informational session was scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Pleasant View Elementary, according to a news release attributed to school Principal Angi Sauk.

“As many of you know, the district has been looking at staffing and facility needs and held strategic planning meetings in June,” Sauk said. She added that interim Superintendent Tom Burris wanted to meet with families before the board meeting “ to discuss concerns and issues we are facing.”

Last week, the board voted unanimously Tuesday night to support Initiative No. 63, a potential November 2022 ballot proposition that would increase funding of public education in Colorado.

The district had nearly 50 vacancies as of June 21, a problem that schools nationwide face while trying to fill jobs before August.

“I think the board understands and recognizes our emergent need for qualified and licensed teachers, and what we need to do to bring them on board in our district,” said Cyndi Eldredge, Re-1’s executive director of human resources. “And I also want to mention that this isn’t just Montezuma-Cortez School District or the state of Colorado. This is a nationwide shortage that all districts and all schools are facing.”

The need for teachers and support staff was a common thread voiced by board members and administrators at Tuesday’s regular board meeting. As of the meeting time, there were 18 vacancies at Manaugh Elementary School, 15 vacancies at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School, and 10 openings at Montezuma-Cortez High School, according to Eldredge and Burris.

Eldredge noted that teacher retention had been identified as the highest point of concern on the district’s strategic plan.

“We do have a fantastic team of teachers here, and those who remain have stepped up and are doing all that they can to support and educate our students and work with us,” she said.

According to Burris, the district employs 205 teachers, 75 paraprofessionals and 120 secretaries, administrators, kitchen staff, custodians, maintenance, technology. The near 50 vacancies represent about about 12% of the current workforce.

The district has taken certain actions over the past year in an effort to attract and retain teachers, including switching to a four-day school week in January. On Tuesday, the board unanimously voted to approve an increase in staff salary schedules.

For example, the base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree, would be raised from $31,557 to $36,000 a year, according to the minutes from the board’s special meeting on April 5.

“Are you finding, as far as from an HR perspective, is this helping?” board member Cody Wells asked Eldredge before the vote.

Eldredge said that there had been much gratitude for these steps, but given the “cost of inflation and everything else rising,” it was still difficult to attract educators even with the higher salaries and shorter school weeks.

The district is working with the Public Education and Business Coalition on alternative licensure programs, Eldredge said, and Burris spoke of the district’s progress in implementing its “Grow Your Own” initiative, which aims to support local community members in attaining teaching credentials.

Initiative No. 63 would “provide significant additional funding for P-12 public schools without raising taxes or tax rates by removing these funds from the TABOR limit calculation and directing a portion of this already collected income tax revenue to the constitutionally protected State Education Fund,” reads the Re-1 resolution.

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Amendment was approved by Colorado voters in 1992, and limits the amount of revenue governments can retain and spend. It stipulates that excess revenue be refunded to taxpayers, and requires certain tax increases be approved by voters.

According to the initiative’s text submitted to the Colorado Department of State, if passed, the proposition would transfer one third of 1% of federal taxable income to the state education fund. The money would “be dedicated specifically to efforts to attract, retain, and compensate teachers and student support professionals,” according to the text.

If Initiative No. 63 makes it onto the November 2022 ballot, the measure would take effect Jan. 1, 2023. The initiative requires 124,632 valid signatures in order to make it onto the ballot, according to the Colorado Secretary of State website.

“I’m glad to see there’s a resolution for Initiative 63 on your agenda tonight,” said community member MB McAfee during the public comments section of the meeting. “In light of everything that our school district is facing, we definitely need more money, even though it brings us up to just sort of sub-par at best. It’s better than not having it.”

This article was republished Monday to include information about the possible closures of Manaugh and Pleasant View elementaries.