There are plenty of advantages to living in rural Colorado, but Elbert High School senior Elizabeth Petersen said there are also downsides to attending school in a tiny district.
“Last year, we lost seven teachers. Not all because of pay, but at least three or four — they just went to find jobs with better pay,” Petersen said.
Elbert is among the rural districts in Colorado where the average teacher salary is under $40,000 a year, and starting salaries can be less than $30,000.
“(Teachers) are working second jobs. They're down at the gas station. They're down at local pizza places and the bar to get a little extra money to support themselves and their families,” Petersen said.
In Campo, a district of just a few dozen students in southeastern Colorado, teachers may have to teach multiple subjects. Malcom Lovejoy’s mother is a social studies teacher, but has filled in for math.
“We lost our well-qualified math teacher two years ago. So that completely excludes any higher level AP-type classes,” Lovejoy said.
Lovejoy and Petersen said they both feel having underpaid teachers affects the quality of their education. They also feel their teachers deserve to make a living wage. They’ve teamed up to propose legislation that would require teachers to make a minimum starting salary of $40,000. They’re still looking for a lawmaker to sponsor a bill.
CU Colorado Springs professor Robert Mitchell, who is advising the students on their bill, said they estimate it would cost the state around $35 million to make up the difference for around 6,000 teachers in Colorado.
“We need to get new folks out here, and if we can keep the teachers we have, it's a win-win because we know replacing a teacher is very difficult and very expensive,” Mitchell said.
Petersen said keeping teachers is also important because students develop relationships with them.
“One or two of those (teachers who left) were my favorite teachers who helped me through dark times,” she said.
“They’re the people you're with the most, besides your parents, for all of your formative years,” Lovejoy added.