St. Vrain teachers hanging in there

By Trevor Hughes
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Few St. Vrain teachers appear to be deserting the district’s classrooms and their students despite a year that included forced pay cuts, a state bailout and widespread public scorn.

According to union leaders, principals and teachers, most St. Vrain Valley School District teachers are, if not happy, at least willing to stay in their classrooms for next year.

At least 100 teachers traditionally quit, transfer or retire out of the district annually. But St. Vrain’s pupil growth, combined with a lack of available jobs elsewhere, appears to offer some measure of classroom stability for students and parents.

“As far as I know, there isn’t going to be a mass exodus,” said Pat Sanderson, head of the St. Vrain teachers’ union. “I know of maybe one person who talked about leaving, and that was in January.”

Because the district’s teachers were some of the best-paid in the state, the 7.125 percent pay cut has brought many of them down to the average pay level, not below it. Combined with a lousy economy that’s slowing even housing growth, teachers appear content to stay put.

District officials have their own reasons for keeping teachers in their classrooms: As part of the state bailout plan hammered out with Treasurer Mike Coffman, the district must maintain its current 24-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio.

District human resources chief Tom Garcia, an assistant superintendent, was too busy to be interviewed for this story. But in a periodic “Road To Recovery” financial update, the school board acknowledged that it needed to keep as many teachers as possible.

“The class sizes are not changing for next year, and the district continues to grow, resulting in the need for even more teachers than this year,” the board said in the update.

Last year, the district refused to renew the contracts of 64 teachers. This year, that’s dropped to about 40. The board will learn more exact numbers tonight.

Contract renewals are just one factor in teacher turnover. Others include retirement or outright departure for another district. The district has recently advertised about 85 teaching vacancies out of about 1,200 full-time teaching positions.

Teacher stability is considered a critical part of successful learning: If new teachers are spending their time learning the ropes, they have less time to focus on teaching children.

Erie Elementary School Principal Rose Lucero knows the value of a committed teacher. Unfortunately, she’s losing three veteran educators to retirement at the end of this school year. Those three teachers have a combined 93 years of experience.

“The classroom has to be stable. Most of us function so much better if there is routine in our lives, if we know what is expected,” said Lucero, who also plans to retire after next year.

While three of Lucero’s approximately 34 teachers are definitely leaving, she said she’s heard nothing about disgruntled younger educators fleeing classrooms following the district’s financial and management pratfalls.

Erie Elementary lost five teachers in the 2001-2002 school year; more recent statistics are unavailable.

“These teachers love being here. Even when we talked about the possibility of the cutbacks, they said they’d rather be in Erie, that they’d rather stay here,” Lucero said. “At this point, no one has shared with me, saying, ‘I’m looking to work for another district.’”

Eagle Crest Elementary teacher Jeanne Ann Scott said she’s sad to be leaving her post but she wanted to follow her football coach husband to his new job at Black Hills State University of South Dakota.

Both Scotts worked in the St. Vrain district for two years, Jeanne Ann teaching first grade and her husband, John, coaching at Silver Creek High School.

“I’m not hearing teachers make comments at all, negative or positive,” Jeanne Ann Scott said. “We have enough to do already. There’s not a lot of down time to have conversations. We don’t have the time to worry about it. We have our students to think about.”

Added Central Elementary Principal Mark Lubbers: “Some of us had been concerned that we wouldn’t be getting applicants, but that hasn’t been the case.”

As of today, Central has one vacancy in its corps of about 23 full-time teachers, and that teacher is leaving for personal reasons, Lubbers said.

Sanderson, like Scott, said teachers rarely sit down to discuss their employment with fellow educators, aside from occasional griping found in any workplace. But this coming year, that may change, Sanderson signaled.

“That’s a piece that’s missing,” she said. “Probably our major job for next year is to constantly question the district and ask what’s going on. I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons this year. Sometimes it feels like the district is business as usual, but it’s never going to be. I think this has changed the community forever. I really do.”

Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 220, or by e-mail at thughes@times-call.com.


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