Facing a critical staff shortage in its schools, the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 Board of Education plans an emergency meeting Wednesday to vote on the potential closures of Manaugh and Pleasant View elementary schools.
Interim Superintendent Tom Burris on Monday night met with parents and teachers to provide details about the plan to close Manaugh Elementary and relocate students to two other schools in Cortez.
Burris also plans to meet with parents and teachers at Pleasant View Elementary Tuesday at 6 p.m., the night before the vote at the school district’s administration office at 400 N. Elm St. in Cortez.
About 40 teachers, parents and school staff gathered at Kemper Elementary Monday to hear about the potential Manaugh closure.
Burris said closing the school was being considered for two main reasons. The 60-year-old building needs extensive repairs and upgrades, and it has 18 teacher and para-teacher vacancies.
“It only had a life span of 50 years,” he said. “Of the three elementary schools, Manaugh is in the worst condition.”
It lacks sufficient heating and cooling, old pipes delivery murky water, and there is no fire suppression system, among other problems.
He said it would cost an estimated $8 million to make all the necessary improvements, which is cost-prohibitive. A new school would cost $16 million.
“Given the condition and lack of staffing, I don’t see what else we could do,” Burris said.
To keep Manaugh open, it would likely have to be staffed with substitute teachers and alternative licensed instructors with degrees other than teaching.
Burris said such a plan likely would be unfair to students and unpopular with parents. Further, Cortez is not attracting teachers because pay is not competitive with other school districts.
According to a district proposal, if Manaugh were closed, 60% of its 229 students would transfer to Mesa Elementary and 40% would go to Kemper. Parents of Towaoc students enrolled at Manaugh could choose the school their children would attend, Burris said.
Kemper had 360 students in the past school year, and Mesa had 333 students. Portable buildings would be installed to add classrooms at the two schools.
School district boundaries and bus schedules also would be adjusted to accommodate the change, Burris said.
Class sizes would increase, he said, but the goal would be to keep grades 1-5 at 24 or fewer students, and kindergarten at 15 students.
Kemper and Mesa schools are aging and in need of repairs and upgrades, a parent noted at the meeting. The increased student population would only increase the wear and tear.
Burris said the community has to answer the bigger question on how to provide adequate long-term school facilities.
An audience member suggested building a new facility that would consolidate all the district’s elementary grades. The idea would require voters to approve a bond. At least a 35-acre plot would be required.
It was not known how the Manaugh and Pleasant View properties would be used or developed, school officials said.
Closing an elementary is an emotional issue for a community, officials said.
Parent Frankiana Tsosie’s daughter would be a second grade student at Manaugh in fall.
“She knows everybody, and the staff knows the parents. We live nearby and she can walk to school. Now she would have to adjust to taking the bus,” she said.
She is considering enrolling her daughter at the Kwiyagat Community Academy as well.
“It’s unfortunate closing the schools,” said parent Lauren Bradford, who has two young children who will eventually go to Cortez schools. “Having classrooms in portable buildings is not the best.”
A better long-term solution is needed, she said.
Manaugh Principal Robbin Lewis said the proposal to close the school was not totally unexpected giving its disrepair and staff vacancies.
“It is sad, but you have to face reality,” she said. “The community has some decisions to make about the future of its schools.”
Lewis added that if the decision to close the schools is made, students would benefit from experienced teachers at Mesa and Kemper. Also, those teachers will help mentor newly hired teachers just starting their careers.
In emails sent to parents and staff, RE-1 school district administrators cited staffing and facility needs as the reasoning behind the possible closures.
Last week, the school 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 vacancies represent 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 subpar at best. It’s better than not having it.”