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Montezuma-Cortez school district passes teacher pay initiatives

Plans to begin addressing teacher pay in the Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 are in the works.
HR manager links critical staff shortages and staff wages

Tuesday, the Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 Board of Education passed a motion to increase pay for teachers who cover other classes during districtwide staffing shortages, as well as for ESS paraprofessionals.

The pay increase is retroactive, taking effect Sept. 1.

RE-1 Director of Finance Kyle Archibeque and Director of Human Resources Cynthia Eldredge proposed the salary increases and linked the staff shortage to wages.

“Entry-level salaries are below average, and in order to recruit routine employees, the district would have to reevaluate the salary schedule and substitute pay,” Eldredge said at the monthly board meeting.

Teachers’ pay has been an ongoing board discussion. Teachers in the district currently start at a salary of about $32,000, Archibeque told The Journal Sept. 7.

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The district is critically short of paraprofessionals for Exceptional Student Services, Eldredge said, and the board voted to make their starting hourly rate $14.50 instead of $13.50.

“The amount of work that they have to do – constant supervision, constant one-on-one or overview – is remarkable,” she said. “We need to hold these individuals up on pedestals for what they do for our students.”

She also recommended increasing teacher-for-teacher substitute salaries. In the secondary schools, if a teacher fills in for an absent teacher, they are paid $13.33 an hour. For activities outside of regularly scheduled work hours, like tutoring, teachers receive an hourly rate of $30.48, she said. She wanted this rate to apply to teacher-for-teacher subbing.

“It’s the very least that we can do to show the value of the teacher willing to step up and cover for the shortages that we have,” she said.

These recommendations were steps the district could take now to address teacher pay, she said.

The district also is short of substitute teachers.

Currently, the district has 32 substitute teachers, and 13 of them are already filling long-term teacher positions, Eldredge said.

She said she’s been hanging flyers at businesses and meeting with people to try to recruit substitutes.

“I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “I have tried everything – every avenue possible. It seems to work – I’ve actually recruited two people.”

She said the district has also recruited three certified teachers from the Phillipines – two at Manaugh Elementary and one at Kemper Elementary.

Another teacher from the BridgeUSA program – which helps exchange teachers from other countries to teach in primary and secondary schools in the United States – is waiting on her J-1 Visa, Eldredge said.

To address staffing gaps, the district has established an “emergency team.” Principals can contact Eldredge if they are short-staffed, and she will reach out to designated individuals on the list, she said.

The strain is being felt across the district. For example, at Pleasant View Elementary School, two teachers are instructing three grades each and answering the phone and doors, Assistant Superintendent Lis Richard said.

“Throughout this year, I have had numerous circumstances where our staff have been exhausted – they are covering multiple classes, they are coming together taking on jobs that are not theirs,“ said Montezuma-Cortez Middle School Principal Drew Pearson. ”I have had people who are looking at emergency surgeries and trying to be back in a number of days. They’re postponing cancer treatments, they’re doing all these things because we cannot cover our classes.“

Pearson said multiple staff members have cried in his office, and he has reassured them that “help is coming.”

Several staff members from the middle school presented what they thought were the most pressing issues in the district. Amanda Robinson, an electives teacher from the middle school, introduced them.

“I don’t think that it’s overstating things to suggest that we will likely have devastating attrition if we don’t do some things to improve our work environment,” she said.

Brittany Lange, another middle school teacher, spoke about the staffing shortage.

“The staffing situation that we find ourselves in this year is not just the result of an emergency – it is a crisis that has been going on for many years,” she said.

Teachers are taking on extra work, she said. For example, teachers are covering classes during planning periods and grading work for other classes. Elective teachers are also instructing core classes. This is in addition to the teachers working to meet the needs of both in-person and online students as a result of quarantine.

“When our remaining teachers need time off for doctor’s appointments, sick children, or deaths in the family, we are faced with the knowledge that our overburdened colleagues will suffer the consequences of our absence by acting as our substitutes,” she said.

Eldredge said the district recently launched Triad Health’s Employee Assistance Program, which provides three free counseling to employees and their beneficiaries.

Usage climbed 14% in the past week, she said. She speculated the increase might have been caused by “all of the issues we had to deal with last week.”

The program offerings may grow in the future if district employees show interest, she said.

“People are using it, and that makes me feel like it’s worth the effort that we’ve put into providing it for our employees,” she said.

On Sept. 15, a shooting occurred at a house near Kemper Elementary School — just two days after a Utah man said he hid bombs at Montezuma-Cortez middle and high schools.

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Eldredge said staff shortages are “becoming more and more apparent.”

Increased enrollment, staff medical leaves, resignations, quarantines and the lack of new hires have contributed to the growing issue across many departments, she said.

This article was updated Sept. 28 to include details of the pay plan.