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Op-Ed: Colorado State Education Board fails rural teachers

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On Thursday, March 14, Elizabeth School District asked for a waiver from the Colorado State Board of Education allowing it to consider hiring non-licensed substitutes to serve in its classrooms as a last resort. The rural district, which sits on the edge of the Denver metro area, has been working for the last year to close a staffing gap resulting from a substitute fill rate of less than 60%, which has put major pressure on its teachers.

Under state rules, school districts may only employ substitute teachers who hold a license in Colorado, however charter schools are not held to such rules. Public school districts may apply for a waiver to the State Board of Education through a process of public notification, community communication, staff support, and a school board resolution. Only one other district in Colorado, Falcon School District 49 in Colorado Springs, has sought and been granted such a waiver.

Elizabeth has worked to recruit additional licensed substitutes since last March while collaboratively completing all necessary steps to apply for this waiver. Despite these efforts, our fill rate has remained unchanged. Our teachers often give up their plan time or absorb extra students to cover for colleagues who are sick, have a sick child, have jury duty, or are out for other reasons. With rural teachers already underpaid due to the disparate funding system in Colorado, the burden on rural teachers is exhausting and causing many of them to choose to leave the profession.

In its current substitute system, Elizabeth has access to 285 substitutes who serve charter schools across the metro area. These substitutes are background-checked and meet all other requirements in Colorado, except they don’t hold a Colorado substitute license. Many of these individuals have other full-time jobs and are simply trying to give back to the community. It’s not a full-time gig for them so licensing seems pointless. Charter schools keep them busy, however they are more than willing to help us in Elizabeth, too.

With strong teacher support, we developed a plan to seek a waiver allowing us to open jobs to these unlicensed substitutes within two days of their occurrence if they remain unfilled. We offered to track our effectiveness and even report back to the State Board. Our teachers’ union president appeared with me as we proposed our solution to the State Board on this waiver.

This seemed like a simple request, although it is well known that our school board is a conservative board. Still to our surprise, the six Democrats on our State Board decided that politics-over-teachers would rule the day. With condescending tones and statements, they voted down the waiver citing concerns over background checks, which are, in fact, conducted on each of these unlicensed substitute candidates, and who – by the way – are currently serving in schools today.

I pointed out that the CDE background check did not screen out a Colorado Licensed Substitute whom we had to eject from our high school several weeks ago because he thought it was appropriate to share his Tinder social media profile with teenage students. We all agree background checks are important!

I am saddened that Board Members Escárcega, Esser, McClellan, Plomer, Schroeder and Solis showed such disdain for rural teachers and denied them a simple request for relief. Our teachers and I have invited them to a meeting on April 4 to bring their solution to the table since “local control” appears to have little value to them. We thank board members Durham, Scheffel and Varela, who argued in support of our balanced approach. State Board members, it’s not too late to reverse your actions and instead place teachers and students ahead of politics.

Rural teachers and communities do matter. Local school boards matter, even when they are elected by conservative communities. It’s time our State Board politicians put politics aside and work for the good of ALL teachers and students!

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