Staffing challenges, a potential mill levy override to continue funding district operations, post-COVID-19 rehabilitation and safety and security.
These are a few of the matters facing Greeley-Evans School District 6 and Superintendent Deirdre Pilch, who recently began her seventh year in the school system that is the 13th largest in the state with 22,694 students including online and charter students.
District 6 students returned to school less than two weeks ago, and the importance of these matters is already apparent.
A Jefferson High School student is facing a first-degree assault charge after stabbing another student Aug. 15 at the school. Chief of Security and Safety John Gates will provide an update Monday on security and safety measures during the Greeley-Evans board of education’s business meeting.
Pilch said there are components to the district’s safety and security plan it won’t discuss because it could leave the system vulnerable. There are fundamental steps the schools and district can take to protect buildings and people, including additional training.
“Secure our doors, pay attention to whose coming and going from our buildings, pay attention to who is outside our buildings, calling the police when something doesn’t look right,” Pilch said.
Days before the year began, the Greeley-Evans board of education approved spending up to $2 million to cover the cost of student meals for those whose application for free-and-reduced meals was rejected based on income eligibility set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Director of Nutrition Services Danielle Bock estimated this benefit to apply to about 8,000-10,000 students. Nearly 15,000 students in District 6 were eligible for free-and-reduced meals, according to 2020-21 statistics from the Colorado Department of Education. This translates to about 67% of students in the district, meaning poverty is also also a very real challenge in the Greeley and Evans communities.
And it’s a challenge that also has to be dealt with in the school district. Free-and-reduced lunch rates are an indicator of poverty levels.
“The way we shift poverty is we educate children well, and that’s what we have to do here,” said Pilch, who has a doctorate of education in educational policy. “That’s what gets me out of bed every day. Our job is to get kids college and career ready. A part of that is to have resources like AVID, K through 12, to have those smart labs in our elementary schools so that kids are getting to do things that are exploratory early on to begin thinking about college and career.”
AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a schoolwide system that prepares students to succeed in rigorous curriculum using writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization and reading, according to the District 6 website. It’s available in nearly two dozen schools.
Mill levy override: ‘Very critical’ to renew this year
The board of education has an important decision on the MLO, a voter-approved tax that overrides the state funding formula for school districts to provide additional revenue for operations such as safety and security, curriculum, attracting and maintaining a workforce and charter school support on a per-pupil basis.
Whereas bonds pay for construction and renovation of schools in Colorado, an MLO funds what goes inside of buildings.
On Monday, the board will decide if it will request a renewal of the mill levy override tax on voter ballots this fall, allowing district residents to choose if they want to continue the tax initially approved in 2017.
A district citizens’ advisory committee earlier this month recommended continuing the MLO with a termination or sunset. The current MLO expires at the end of 2023. The district will continue to collect MLO dollars from 2023 into spring 2024.
Pilch said it’s “very critical” for the district to go for the MLO this year rather than holding off until 2023.
“It is not as prudent to wait as it is to go,” she said, explaining “it’s harmful to kids to wait.”
Pilch said the district will have to make cuts in personnel and programs a year from now if it delays pursuing a renewal of the MLO. The district will have to set up its 2023-24 budget as if the MLO dollars won’t be available.
The district has received about $88 million through MLO revenue since the 2019-20 school year, according to its 2022-23 budget. Pilch said during a board of education work session Aug. 8 the MLO revenue this year (2022-23) comprises 8%, or $22,395,498, of the district’s general operating fund revenue of $269,035,577.
The district budget runs on a fiscal year from July 1-June 30. Chief Financial Officer Meggan Sponsler begins the annual budgeting process in December for the next fiscal year. At the end of this year, Sponsler and the district will begin to lay out its 2023-24 budget.
“You can’t hire people in August and let them go in January, February or March because the revenue didn’t come in,” Pilch said.
Knowing the future of the MLO this year will allow the district an easier path in planning its 2023-24 budget and beyond, and also allow for continuity in programming.
If the MLO goes on the ballot this year and is not renewed, Pilch said the effect will be harmful to students.
“I don’t renew, and I don’t purchase curriculum, I don’t renew digital content, I don’t renew programs that manage our individual career and academic plans,” Pilch said. “I don’t re-hire our attendance advocates and our community and business partnership administrator. I can’t put kids in college courses. I will first semester, but then I have to plan on that they can’t take a yearlong course.”
MLO dollars have been used for academic and vocational support for students including concurrent enrollment at Aims Community College for more than 1,000 students.
Staffing: ‘We know we have to grow our own’
While there remains a debate on the impact and reach of a teacher shortage nationwide, according to Chalkbeat earlier this month, Pilch said District 6 has been affected by fewer teacher candidates available to the school system.
Staffing issues are a challenge for school district administrators in Colorado, according to Pilch. She communicates with superintendent colleagues statewide, and she said district leaders reported openings at a recent meeting.
“Absolutely,” Pilch said. “We all have openings.”
There were 181 openings in all positions in District 6 as of Aug. 20, according to its website. Pilch stressed some of those positions are open all of the time. One of the most highly discussed openings in school districts nationwide is among bus drivers.
“We need everybody,” Pilch said. “We need every single position we have in the system to fully operate for the children we serve. Transportation would tell you the greatest need is bus drivers. Nutrition services would tell you the greatest need is nutrition-service workers. My elementary principal is going to tell you the greatest need is a special education teacher.”
Unfilled positions in departments such as transportation and nutrition services can stop district operations if employees are not found, or if enough positions remain vacant.
The lack of substitute teachers or teachers might also lead to a pause in district operations if numbers are highly impacted by an outbreak of illness such as norovirus or COVID-19.
In October 2021, the Colorado Education Association estimated more than 3,300 open jobs in public schools in Colorado. The 3,376 openings added up to 1,125 from licensed staff and 2,251 support professionals, according to the CEA.
Pilch said what feels different this year is teaching openings include not only specialized areas of education, such as special education, art or physical education. The vacancies also extend to general education.
“We used to have dozens of candidates in those content areas, whereas now, any content area could be a shortage,” Pilch said.
According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education earlier this year, U.S. colleges awarded fewer than 90,000 undergraduate degrees in education in 2019. This is down from about 200,000 education degrees a year in the early 1970s.
The association also reported the number of people completing traditional teacher-prep programs has dropped by 35% over the last decade, and the number of students earning degrees in science and math education has decreased by 27%. Science and math are areas of high need in U.S. schools.
As of early last week, District 6 had 75 teaching positions open and about one-third filled with long-term substitutes, according to Sponsler. There are about 40 school-based classified positions open, and half of those are special education paraprofessionals. Classified employees are support staff not licensed as educators or administrators such as office managers, secretaries, bus drivers and monitors, nutrition service workers, custodians and grounds crew.
There are about 130 positions open in support sites and these include jobs in nutrition services (40 openings), custodial (20) and transportation (25) for drivers and monitors.
Pilch said the use of long-term subs from University of Northern Colorado student teachers is one way the district is managing in-classroom needs.
District 6 has maintained a relationship with UNC and its college of education. Pilch said UNC and other colleges and universities in Colorado are seeing lower levels of interest among students who go into education, which in turn impacts the pool of student teachers.
The Colorado Department of Education reported a slight drop in total enrollment for educator preparation enrollment in programs statewide from 2018-19 (12,267) to 2019-20 (11,683), which is a difference of about 5%. Data for the 2019-20 academic year is the most recent information available, according to CDE.
UNC also saw a 6.8% drop in educator preparation enrollment in traditional and alternative programs when comparing the same two academic years — 2,924 in 2018-19 to 2,731 in 2019-20. The gap was less than one-half of a percent (0.40) when comparing educator preparation program enrollment at the university between 2015-16 (2,742) and 2019-20 (2,731).
Pilch said the district works with UNC students as student teachers and then transitions them into roles as long-term substitutes. The district also enhanced its teacher-career pathway to allow access for middle school students to learn more about the profession.
“You have to have people,” Pilch said. “We know we have to grow our own. We also know that down the road we’re probably going to need programs where our classified employees can access the coursework they need to actually become a classroom teacher.”
Post-COVID recovery: Regain public trust and confidence
Nearly 2 1/2 years since the onset of COVID-19, and public school districts continue to feel the effects and the impact of the pandemic, Pilch said.
One of the impacts is that K-12 public education was “smack-dab” in the middle of the politicization that came out of the pandemic where sides were drawn on a variety of mitigation efforts around COVID-19 such as masks, vaccines and if and when schools should open.
Pilch said in her view, schools had not been caught up in the politics of an issue since the civil rights movements when schools were racially integrated. As a result, Pilch said public schools “have a lot of work to do to regain public trust and confidence.”
Pilch mentioned reading a survey that found Republicans or conservations felt public schools overreached with too many restrictions during COVID, while Democrats or liberals saw it differently — districts didn’t implement enough protections for students.
“So everybody is kind of mad at us right now,” Pilch said.
She added the anger is not directed toward families’ individual schools — for the most part. The lack of trust is aimed at the K-12 public education system because of COVID-19.
“So that’s a big, darn deal,” Pilch added. “We have to figure out to turn that around.”
She said the change or the turnaround comes from reopening schools to volunteers, parents and visitors so they may see what District 6 and public schools do for students. She also said District 6 has to be more mindful of transparency and never think an item is too small for people’s attention or care.
“Over-communicate, over-communicate, over-communicate,” Pilch said. “Tell the truth about what’s happening in public education, and we gotta answer for the mistakes we make when we make mistakes, and we have to fix those things,” she said.
With a hypothetical crystal ball into the new school year, Pilch said she thinks families and students will continue to want options in public education. She said providing choice is a component of the opening of the new Tointon Academy of Pre-Engineering and a new center for career and technical education complex with remodeled and relocated Jefferson High School.
“They have choice, and they have opportunity,” Pilch said.
The results of state assessment tests administered in the spring were released last week by the Colorado Department of Education, showing some learning loss, though not significant loss, according to Pilch.
In District 6, the percentages of students in all schools who met or exceeded grade-level expectations were 29.8% in English Language Arts and 17.4% in math. The district had 9,258 valid scores in language arts and 9,304 in math. The District 6 percentages were down from 2019, before COVID-19, when the results showed 34.7% met or exceeded grade-level expectations in language arts and 21.4% in math.
“No question about that,” she said. “There is learning loss. I think there is also some social-interaction loss that we’re going to need to make up for with students and with adults. For some of the folks, whether they’re the little-bitty people or great-big people, I think they’re going to need more supports in transitioning back into being with people all the time.”