Steamboat Springs Solutions to resort areas' affordable housing, transportation and economic diversity problems may be rooted in a lack of higher education opportunities available to Western Slope residents. At least that's what one candidate for the University of Colorado's Board of Regents believes.
Gail Schwartz, a 27-year Aspen resident and former executive director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, said it is time for one of the university's regents to represent the Western Slope of Colorado and tackle the challenges associated with places such as Pitkin and Routt County.
"It's called the University of Colorado, not just the University of the Front Range," Schwartz said.
While visiting Routt County last week, Schwartz met and spoke with several community leaders in Steamboat, including Rob Dick, the Regional Affordable Living Foundation's director.
"There are two sides to the affordable housing equation," Dick said. "One is lower-cost housing and the other is higher wages. It is clear to me that higher wages are directly related to education, and with the advent of technology both the jobs people are being paid well to do as well as the way they are educated is changing rapidly."
Schwartz's goal is to take advantage of those changes.
"We have the technology and we have the linkages," she said. "What we need are more courses. There won't be more courses unless we have a viable number of interest people. That's something we've been criticized for: lack of critical mass. If we were to build a new university out here on the Western Slope, for example, someone would still have to drive four hours to get there. It's not a viable option."
Schwartz said an educated work force would start to disperse the economically viable areas on the Western Slope. That means people from Hayden or Craig, for example, would not have to commute to Steamboat for a job that may not be financially worth the commute.
"Seven thousand people commute into Pitkin every day," Schwartz said. "People drive in all the way from Debeque, which is just under a two-hour drive. The child-care issues that this creates are just one of the many problems. At one point, the state scaled back education requirements for child-care providers because it was tough to meet those requirements in a rural area. We've been settling for less than we should."
Schwartz believes that without some educational intervention, whereby residents of rural, isolated areas are able to receive higher-education degrees without leaving the communities in which they live, areas such as Routt County are on a collision course with some of the problems Schwartz has seen in Aspen.
"The average cost of a home is $3.5 million in Aspen. Try to hire a nurse or a teacher. I know one woman who drives from Parachute to Aspen every day for $10 an hour. And she's got children in Parachute."
Although Dick has met only briefly with Schwartz, he does agree with many of her ideas.
"I do see education and (Colorado Mountain College's) role in this as pivotal. As the world changes, the community will need to be educated," he said.
Schwartz would like for the Western Slopes' colleges and community colleges to work hand in hand with school districts in an effort to heighten the levels of discussion among school boards and to provide all teachers and educators with access to higher education courses and degrees.
"I think Gail Schwartz has some great ideas about university/college connections with school districts," Steamboat Springs Superintendent Cyndy Simms said. "I would certainly enjoy pursuing conversations with the CU Regents Board if (Schwartz) is elected."
As a former CU graduate with three years' experience as a Colorado Commissioner on Higher Education appointed by Gov. Roy Romer, Schwartz wants to distribute the state's educational resources equitably to meet the social and economic needs throughout Colorado, in part by developing access to CU programs on a statewide basis for all qualified students.
Schwartz is running against incumbent Henry Anton Jr. of Pueblo for CU district that encompasses the Western Slope. It is one of three regents' seats up for re-election this November.
"Access to the university programs is difficult on the Western Slope. With representation by one of our own, we have a chance to bring attention to the higher education needs of rural Colorado," Schwartz said.
The CU regents manage four campuses (all of which are on the Eastern Slope), 50,000 students and a $1.4 billion budget. They set policies that govern the university system and chart its future direction. The regents are responsible for hiring the president and four chancellors and for dealing with the state Legislature regarding statewide education issues.
"It is essential that the Western Slope and southern Colorado be represented by a strong advocate for education in our region," Schwartz said.
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