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Rural Colorado school districts continue the search for answers in filling growing teacher vacancies

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Posted at 8:49 AM, Feb 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-18 10:49:28-05

FORT MORGAN, Colo. — The burnout is real for Colorado teachers after working two years through the pandemic. Hiring and retaining teachers are just two of the issues dozens of districts are up against.

At Morgan County School District Re-3, officials have turned to J-1 visas, increasing the number of students in classrooms, bumping pay and offering better benefits to help them bring in more teachers.

"It's been difficult. I won't lie about that," said Jason Frasco, the Fort Morgan Middle School principal.

Despite not being the easiest time to be a school principal, Frasco loves and shows up to the job Monday through Friday.

In the past two years, dealing with teacher vacancies has been a top issue for the district and for the schools who make it up.

"It's tough because, although we're a great community and strong community, we don't have a lot of offerings that the the larger cities have for our teachers, from the social aspect of social life, to those things that a lot of our young teachers are looking for, Frasco said. "So, it is difficult."

The rural community is home to Morgan County School District Re-3, which is made up of seven schools and one early childhood center.

Right now, Fort Morgan Middle School is down two teachers. At the start of 2021, 13 teachers had to be hired. In 2020, it was three teachers and five in 2019.

"The pool is not very deep in regards to applicants that we get from the community, from the state or across the United States," Frasco said.

Across the school district, the need was greater. There were 50 vacancies out of 250 teacher positions at the beginning of the year.

Brian Childress, the HR director in the district, turned to multiple options to get those 50 openings filled, like hiring J-1 visa teachers.

"Folks coming from other countries on a three-year visa to work for us, that's been very successful," Childress said.

They're also bringing aboard those who have alternative licenses versus the traditional teaching degree.

"Second career people, people who are coming out of college but didn't necessarily pursue education to begin with and are working through an alternative licensure program," Childress said.

Increasing pay as much as the district could was also something officials found themselves turning to.

"We were able to increase base salary by $2,000," he said. "It's working, but not terrific."

The district has also bounced another idea around: a four-day school week.

They plan to discuss the idea in more detail come June, but they wouldn't be the only ones potentially turning to this. Over 60% of Colorado school district already have a four-day school week, and they're mostly smaller rural districts.

A notable exception to that is Brighton 27 J schools. It's one of the largest districts in the country on a four-day schedule. The district went to a four-day week back in 2018 in hopes of attracting and better retaining teachers.

Student shave every Monday off while teachers take one Monday each month for planning and professional development.

However, just offering the extra day off hasn't solved all of their problems. Denver7's Nicole Brady sat down with Superintendent Chris Fiedler who said the district has continued struggling with hiring primarily because it cannot compete with the salaries being offered a neighboring districts.

"On average, we receive about 80% of the revenue they do because literally all of them have passed mill levy overrides that are significant, garnering more revenue per student than just through the school finance act," Fiedler said.

When asked if it came down to money, Fiedler said it's not about getting rich, but getting by.

"I don’t think anybody becomes a teacher because they have visions of Ferraris dancing in their heads. They choose to teach or drive a bus or clean buildings out of a love for kids and purpose," he said. "At some point, that gap becomes so wide that even a unique schedule, a four-day week becomes a challenge to attract folks."

At the Morgan County School District, a working system is all officials can ask for with the hope the incentives it's offered attract any and all teachers.