Superintendent seeks to boost pay for rural teachers

Bissonette wants lawmakers to deal with lack of equality in pay

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Elizabeth School District Superintendent Douglas Bissonette is on a mission to gain equality in teacher pay throughout Colorado.

“Every school district has its challenges,” Bissonette said. “We have lost 30 percent of our teachers every year, four years in a row.”

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.

“They liked working here…The problem is that many can’t afford to work here as a teacher,” Bissonette said. “We looked at where they went after they worked here, and most went to the districts in the area, Cherry Creek, Douglas County and Aurora.

“After looking at dozens and dozens of departures, we found an average of a 26 percent pay increase for them when they took employment in other districts.”

For the 2015-16 school year, the average salary for a teacher in Elizabeth was $38,419, according to the Colorado Department of Education. In neighboring Douglas County, the average was $51,274.

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.

“That means 80,000 students are being taught by the bottom 10 percent,” he said. “That amounts to the number of students in the third-largest district in the state.”

He notes that living in rural areas is not necessarily cheaper than living in urban areas. Except for housing, he says, food, transportation, and health care are more expensive in rural areas.

“I’d like to see teachers paid more equitably around the state — for the benefit of the state and for the benefit of the teachers,” he said.

Although he agrees that teachers should be paid for experience and education, he points out that smaller districts receive less state funding due to the structure of financing for districts in Colorado.

“The state and national rhetoric is the same, ‘every kid deserves a great education.’ Most people would agree that has to happen through quality teachers. If we’re not paying them equally across the state then how can we accomplish that?” Bissonette said.

He compiled extensive documentation on the issue with the goal of sharing his findings. On Dec. 9, he presented a PowerPoint presentation titled, “Teacher Salaries: A Look at Equity in an Era of Accountability,” at the Colorado Association of School Boards Convention. He also presented at the School Executives Annual Conference in Fort Collins and, since January, at numerous other places throughout the state.

“The reaction they have is surprise. They have viewed it as an individual problem. Now, they see some 110 districts just like them,” Bissonette said.

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.

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