Concerns prompt resignations

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In the Steamboat Springs School District, 11 teachers and aides are retiring this year, and 14 are resigning.

Although district officials said those numbers are typical, some of those resigning said a small exodus is taking place because of concerns about the way the district is being managed.

The reasons for the resignations vary, including a desire to move closer to family, advancing an education and not being able to afford to live in Steamboat, according to copies of the resignation letters. Some letters don't specify why the employee is leaving.

But at least one letter cites deeper concerns about recent changes in the district, and three teachers who have resigned have been vocal about their concerns.

Mike Smith, former president of the Steamboat Springs Education Association, said he thinks teachers do not feel as respected and appreciated by the superintendent and School Board as they have in the past. Dissatisfaction, he said, is a new theme in people's reasons for leaving.

Paula Stephenson, president of the Steamboat Springs School Board, said the district highly values its teachers and staff members.

But the district also has to make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire organization. Some decisions, such as changes to ensure that benefits and compensation are distributed fairly among staff could be viewed as a lack of caring by the people who are negatively affected by those changes, Stephenson said.

But overall, she said those potential changes would let the district more fairly provide the most it can for all employees.

Turnover not unusual

Last year, school district officials conducted an exit survey of departing high school teachers, Superintendent Donna Howell said. The goal was to better understand why people leave.

That study will continue this year and will include all district schools.

The perception is that many teachers leave because they cannot afford to live in Steamboat on their salaries, Howell said.

Last year's survey revealed several major themes, including the high cost of living, she said. Other factors were continuing education, relocating and pursuing other professions, Howell said. As with any organization, some people leave, in part, because they are unhappy, she said.

Having a districtwide survey this year could provide valuable information that might be helpful in preventing some resignations in the future.

But there isn't evidence that the Steamboat Springs School District is unique in its turnover rate.

"It's like this anywhere. There are always problems retaining teachers in any district in Colorado," Stephenson said. "Public education is just a hard business to attract and retain teachers to. You have to have a real passion for it, and we're really lucky -- our teachers do, and they make it work."

The school district's 14.4 percent rate of teacher turnover in 2003 was comparable to the statewide rate. According to the Colorado Department of Education, there was a 14.5 percent turnover rate for classroom teachers in 2003. The percentage includes teachers who resigned or retired.

When teachers leave, the school district has no difficulty getting applicants to fill most positions, Howell and Stephenson said. Certain fields, such as math and special education, can be difficult to fill because of nationwide teacher shortages in those areas.

Otherwise, Steamboat easily attracts teachers, mostly because it's the sort of place a lot of people want to live -- a resort community in the mountains of Colorado, Stephenson said.

Dissatisfaction rising

Smith said he thinks there were two main reasons for teachers leaving in past years: retirement and the high cost of living.

Now, he said, dissatisfaction with the School Board and superintendent and a lack of trust in both are creeping into the equation.

"I think there's a feeling that there's more of an interest in taking care of the bottom line than the people who take care of the community's kids," he said.

Teacher and support staff salaries for next year should be increased to equal the mean of 11 other school districts Steamboat compares itself to. But that won't help the district's salaries catch up with next year's mean, so the increase is not enough, Smith said.

Also, health care benefits for employees who are not full-time might be prorated according to how much the employee works. That change could become final when negotiations for next year's contracts are completed, Smith said.

Overall, he said that teachers are being asked to do more for less, and they are tired of it.

Specific concerns

Three resigning teachers have voiced their concerns about the district.

Joan Allsberry, who has worked in the district since 1997, thinks there is too much control by the administration and not enough loyalty and trust shown to its employees. Her concerns focus on Howell's leadership style. Howell has been superintendent for almost two years.

"I, and other people, don't feel valued and don't feel the loyalty that we have always felt and we have always returned," she said.

For the past four years, she has worked part-time in the counseling office. She also secured grants as the district's health coordinator, a position that was centralized this year.

Under the negotiated contract conditions that could be finalized in the coming weeks, Allsberry said she may have received partial health care benefits instead of the full benefits she had.

Decreasing benefits and salaries for employees who have received those packages for years so that there can be small raises districtwide can be disheartening, she said.

Susie Ritter, who has taught music at the high school and middle school for the past nine years, resigned this year and echoed some of Allsberry's concerns.

After pursuing a master's degree in drama during the summers, Ritter decided to focus on teaching drama and art. She thought she would have a position at the high school this year.

But the option was not made available to her -- she could have continued teaching middle and high school choir or teach five out of a possible seven sections, which would mean a substantial cut in pay, she said. She was willing to teach six sections, but said she was told that was not possible, so she decided not to return.

The experience made her feel as if she and every other teacher were considered "expendable" and that there was no loyalty extended from district officials to teachers.

"I felt like I wasn't a priority. I felt like they were willing to let me go," Ritter said. "I felt like that's the hardest part for me, because I have thrown myself into this job.

"I love my job, and I love my kids, and I think it shows by the way I teach. I wish that I could stay -- this is my home, this is where my friends are -- but I can't."

Drama teacher Stuart Handloff resigned because he was told he likely would not be paid a comparable amount to what he had been receiving and that he wouldn't receive full benefits. Decreasing his pay and benefits substantially in an effort to even things out districtwide was not appropriate to him.

He said he is not holding grudges. But, he thinks that while the School Board and superintendent work to make salaries consistent they are overlooking the effects of their actions on individual programs and employees.

A fair district

A final proposal for new contracts for teachers and other staff should be available next week. The contract will not be final until it is voted on by all district employees. The proposal will be a product of the Collaborative Bargaining Team, which includes teachers, staff, administrators and School Board members.

Because the proposal is not final, details cannot be released, Howell said.

But, the proposal will include changes to salaries, extra duty stipends (for activities such as coaching and directing plays, concerts and other after-school events), health care benefits and use of sick and personal days.

Typically, people equate their sense of value with compensation. If that compensation is decreased in any way, they may feel like they aren't as valued, Howell said.

But changes that have been discussed are meant to make compensation and benefits more fair and equitable across the district. Arguments that the school district does not value its employees simply are not true, she said.

"We value all of our staff," Howell said. "It's all about what we can afford, and it's all about how can we put a system in place that will treat everybody equally."

Howell said she has heard from several teachers and staff that they are glad to hear district officials are working on a system that is fair for everyone.

"What we want to do is provide the most that we can for the employees that we have," Stephenson said.

There is a cultural shift in the district that is taking place, Howell and Stephenson agreed. The shift means that some district activities, such as curriculum development, are going to be overseen at the district level and that common hiring practices will be created throughout the district.

The oversight, Howell said, would not be a form of micromanaging, but would mean more oversight and continuity. The changes were recommended in a recent audit that an outside firm completed for the district.

"We really are looking to retain our quality staff," Howell said. "But we have to deal with all staff in a fair and equitable (way)."

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail scunningham@steamboatpilot.com

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