Eagle County school board approves just under $1 million in funds to address staffing shortage
The money — a mixture of one-time dollars and ongoing funds — will go toward hiring bonuses and salary increases
As the situation around staffing grows more dire at Eagle County Schools, the school board voted on several measures that aim to improve the situation.
In total at Wednesday’s board meeting, the board approved just shy of $1 million in salary increases, hiring bonuses and market adjustments for a variety of hard-to-hire positions. These funds are a combination of one-time funds — many of which are left from cost savings last year and remaining stimulus funds — as well as money budgeted from the annual School Finance Act.
This initial batch of funds is meant to address several positions that the district is in extreme need of right now. This includes nurses, guest teachers, permanent substitutes, pre-K and regular paraprofessionals, student support specialists and health assistants.
One of five nurses
Currently, one of the district’s priorities is hiring nurses. The district is allocated to have five nurses on staff; however, by the end of this week, it will go from having two nurses to one.
“That shortage is putting an impossible strain on the existing nurses and health assistants and creates challenges in completing medical delegations for students who require medical attention on a regular basis,” said Superintendent Philip Qualman. “Medical delegations, to define it, is the training required (for) staff members to administer prescription medication or assist with routine procedures like catheters, anti-seizure devices, insulin shots.”
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For students who rely on medical delegation, participation in athletics, field trips and other events will be impacted without a full staff of nurses. This week, he said that students impacted by the shortage will receive letters that outline their choices until the district can hire more nurses.
Last week, the negotiations team — which is composed of district administators, school principals and members of the Eagle County Education Association — met to address the issue head on. Currently, nurses are included on the certified salary schedule included in the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the teacher’s union. This means that any salary increases must go through a negotiation process.
At the meeting, the board approved the agreement reached through negotiations, which moves nurses to a new salary schedule, the special services salary schedule, which is also the schedule used for school psychologists, occupational therapists and other clinical positions.
This helps the district “be more competitive” with other places hiring nurses right now, Qualman said. This schedule change will result in a salary increase of $8,000 per person.
“Gone are the days where we were able to have full-time school nurses in every single school building, and now to look at potentially having one in the entire district in a week from now, seems like crisis mode to me,” said Michelle Stecher, a board member.
After the board’s approval, the change now faces a vote from the Eagle County Education Association before it is implemented.
The district also presented a staffing plan that addresses additional shortages. Currently, the district has 70 unfilled positions, something Qualman said was “unprecedented at this time of year.”
The plan addresses shortages for school nurses, guest teachers, permanent subs, pre-K and regular paraprofessionals, health assistants and student support specialists. It includes a mix of market adjustments to make salaries for these positions more competitive, as well as hiring bonuses.
“We know this isn’t solving the whole entire problem, but we hope it solves some of the small ones,” Kate Cocchiarella, board president, said.
Qualman attributed part of the staffing challenge to the low funding that Colorado gives to education — which he said is ranked No. 50 in the U.S. for teacher pay and No. 39 in per-pupil funding — as well as overall changes to the job requirements as a result of the pandemic. Another part, he said, could be attributed to the growing politicization of education.
“The last piece to point out as a potential cause to this staffing shortage is the political baggage that we’re feeling in public K-12 education makes jobs less appealing,” he said, adding that while he feels Eagle County has remained civil and respectful for the most part, national and state debates and the news media have “portrayed it as a pretty difficult, ugly place to work.”
Breaking down the numbers
In total, at the meeting, the board of education approved $994,989 to address the staffing concerns. The breakdown is:
- $40,000: An estimated increase in salary of $8,000 per year for all five allocated school nurses (ongoing)
- $25,000: A $5,000 hiring incentive, to be paid in $1,000 installments for five months, to existing nurses and new nurse hires (one-time funds)
- $12,200: A $500 hiring incentive allocated for 20 guest teachers, $250 of which will be paid upon completion of one job, with the remaining $250 paid after the completion of 10 jobs (one-time funds)
- $160,000: A salary increase of $1.25 per hour to the hourly wage for guest teachers, budgeted for 120 guest teachers, which bumps the hourly wage from $18.75 per hour to $20 per hour (ongoing)
- $111,082: A salary increase of $2 per hour for permanent substitute positions, budgeted for 29 permanent substitute positions, which increases the hourly wage from $20 per hour to $22 per hour (ongoing)
- $9,760: A hiring incentive of $500 for pre-K paraprofessionals, of which the district needs to hire 16. The first $250 of this bonus will be paid in the first paycheck and the second $250 will be paid after 90 days of employment (one-time funds)
- $335,000: An increase in the hourly wage for pre-K paraprofessionals by $2 per hour for a total of 102 employees. The starting wage for these positions vary based on education levels (ongoing)
- $80,000: Salaries for an additional two health assistant positions (ongoing)
- $153,000: A $2 increase in the hourly wage for paraprofessionals for an estimated 44 positions (ongoing)
- $68,947: A $2 increase in the hourly wage for student support specialists, budgeted for 18 positions (ongoing)
Part of the staffing plan also included an increase in the hourly wage for health assistants by $2 per hour for a total of 17 employees. However, the plan did not include a total amount for this increase because “this increase will be offset by revenue from Medicaid.”
More money for teachers
Teachers and other district employees are notably missing from these plans and agreements, even though many teachers are stretched thin by the shortages.
However, the district is working to implement changes for all employees in the coming weeks. On Oct. 20, there will be a follow-up negotiations meeting to work on a compensation plan for all employees, including teachers.
Qualman said that the district presented a one-time compensation adjustment to the negotiations team at its last meeting. It would have been a bonus, paid in December 2021 and June 2022 to all employees as a one-time adjustment. However, the teacher’s union expressed that it would prefer an overall increase in salaries rather than one-time bonuses.
“We certainly appreciate that request and agree with them that we would like to see that happen. Our challenge is those dollars that we were willing to put toward a compensation adjustment for this year (are) coming from one-time dollars,” Qualman said. “These are dollars we’re not going to see in the future, and to commit those in the forms of salary means that you’re committing to those dollars over time.”
Teachers have been feeling the weight of staffing shortages as they give up planning time and absorb extra students to maintain in-person learning.
During public comment at the start of Wednesday’s board meeting, a special education teacher, Timothy Moffet, from Gypsum Creek Middle School expressed the difficulty of living in the county on a teacher’s salary. He said he takes home $2,400 a month and works between 60 and 65 hours a week.
“I have destroyed my life savings to keep this job,” he said. “I can’t do this, can’t work where I live and I can’t live where I work.”
Ultimately, he asked the board to act.
“I’m in a bind. I don’t know how all this works,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure that the people in this room have the ability and authority to change this by Monday. I may be naive, but I need some help; there’s 67 people here missing.”
The figure he cited refers to the number of unfilled positions previously stated by the district, though the number has recently risen to 70.