High School gets 16 new teachers

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— For Angela Blair and her husband, the scenery around Steamboat Springs outweighed the high cost of living.

The couple spent the summer looking to move from their home in Moscow, Idaho.

"We knew we wanted to come to Colorado," she said. "My husband got a job here, so it was up to me find a job."

Lucky for Steamboat High School that Blair, a recent college graduate, is certified to teach. Blair, who moved to the area earlier this month, is among 16 new teachers who will be on the high school campus when school starts Monday.

Blair, who will teach in the high school's career and technology program, and the other new teachers comprise nearly a third of the school's staff.

As late as last week, Principal David Schmid said, the school was still trying to fill positions. A mixture of retirements, departures, new positions and enrollment increases created an unusually large number of openings, Schmid said.

For a school that hired only six to seven employees last year, this summer has not been easy. Schmid said he is pleased with the new staff members hired; however, he said finding that many qualified teachers was a difficult task.

"I think there is less quantity of qualified applicants," he said.

Part of the problem is a nationwide teaching shortage that is amplified in Colorado, state education officials said. For example, to fill its 16 openings, Steamboat High went far beyond Colorado's boundaries, hiring teaches from Virginia, North Carolina, Idaho, Oregon, Texas and Florida.

Making hires from so far away sometimes is an act of faith as late as Thursday, two of the 16 new teachers had yet to arrive in Steamboat.

Gayle Dudley, the high school's vocational director, said she went through more than 100 applicants to fill three positions in the career and technology department.

"It felt like we spent most of the summer hiring teachers," Dudley said.

Steamboat's hiring difficulties were shared in other districts throughout the state, said John Meyers of the Denver consulting firm of Augenblick & Meyers, which has done a personnel study for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Meyers, who has also worked with the state's education finance program, said Colorado's lack of school funding and low teaching salaries are the primary reasons for the shortage.

"When comparing (Colorado's) teaching salaries to other states," he said, "it's significantly lower than nationwide."

Colorado's combination of a relatively high cost of living and low salary schedule makes it easy for other states to recruit Colorado teachers to fill their open slots, Meyers said. That problem is exacerbated in Steamboat, which has one of the state's highest costs of living.

Schmid said potential teaching candidates suffer serious sticker shock after looking at housing in the Steamboat area.

"If we offer the position, it doesn't mean people are going to take it," he said. "They might decide it isn't affordable to live here. A new teacher doesn't make that much money."

The statewide and area shortage is not likely to ease as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement.

Meyers said 40 percent of all school administrators will retire in the next 10 years. That number will be smaller for teachers, but still troublesome as recent college graduates head for careers with bigger financial payoffs.

"We cannot find the high quality coming out of college," Meyers said.

During the tremendous economic growth of the 1990s, companies began paying tremendous salaries to new college graduates, luring away many who might otherwise have taught school, particularly in the subject areas of math and science.

"If you are good in math, you're not going to be a teacher," Meyers said. "That didn't used to be true 20 years ago."

Schmid agreed. Among the most difficult positions to fill, he said, were engineer technical, math and consumer planning teachers.

One of the math teachers Steamboat was able to lure was Bob Hiester, a 33-year veteran of teaching in the Denver area. Tired of the city traffic, the Colorado native decided to head to Steamboat.

"I've always liked this place," he said. "It seemed like a good time to get out of Denver."

As head of the math department in his former high school, Grand View, Hiester had the similar problem of finding math teachers.

"Young kids come out of college and go into investment or high tech things," he said.

Hiester is living in a fifth-wheel trailer until he finds a suitable home he can afford. Similarly, the other new teachers hired by the high school said money was less of a concern for them than other issues such as quality of life.

"It's not the money," said Katie Foster, a physical science and biology teacher who came to Steamboat from Virginia.

"I feel like I am doing something important. I feel like I am making a connection with people everyday."

On Friday, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens offered a pilot program geared to attract specialty teachers to Colorado by helping repay their student loans.

Owens said $6 million would be committed to encourage student teachers to become licensed in math, science, special education and linguistically diverse education. Eligible teachers could have up to $2,000 per year in loan payments forgiven for four years if they are under contract as first-year teachers this fall.

Though unaware of Owens' announcement, long-time teacher Dudley did say she is cautious of a state plan that might give new teachers more money than those who have been working longer. But, she does see a need for a pay increase.

"People don't get into teaching for the money," Dudley said.

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