‘Unrealistic and unfair:’ What’s leading local teachers to leave Eagle County Schools
After a school year unlike any other, many departing teachers say pay, housing and child care make it too hard to do the job they love
When Elie Cahill decided that she wanted to plant roots, buy a house and start a family with her fiancé, there was one big thing standing in her way — her job. Both Cahill and her fiancé were teachers at Battle Mountain High School, and with two teacher salaries, they couldn’t afford to make their dreams happen.
“I fortunately found my future in another teacher. The unfortunate part is if we’re going to make that work and have a family, in this valley that I’ve always called home, we both couldn’t be teachers,” Cahill said.
While Cahill wasn’t looking for another job, a job offer from a previous employer forced her and her fiancé to crunch the numbers on what they could afford. Ultimately, they realized having children and having a home in the county wouldn’t be attainable on two teacher salaries. She took the job offer in January, leaving teaching, a career she loved, behind.
“I put my desire to live here and the man I want to marry ahead of the job that I love,” she said. “It’s a bummer that I can’t just have all three.”
The issue of housing — primarily its lack of affordability and availability in Eagle County — is one of many issues forcing teachers out of the job they love. That reality, coupled with a relentless school year in which teachers faced down the challenge of educating students during a global pandemic with moxie, ingenuity and grit, has led many of the county’s educators and leaders to pursue new job opportunities and careers.
While some of these challenges are exacerbated in mountain and resort communities like Eagle County, the district is not alone in its struggles to maintain good educators. Statewide, the Colorado Department of Education has been watching this trend of teacher attrition develop over the past few years.
“We can’t approach education the way we always have,” said Colleen O’ Neil, the associate commissioner for educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education. “Only because, it used to be a profession where somebody entered that profession and they really didn’t leave; they were educators for their life. That was how many careers were, and that has changed and shifted.”
In a survey conducted by the Colorado Education Association, 40% of its 39,000 members across Colorado said they were planning to retire or resign after this school year. These numbers are much higher than what the association has seen in previous years, according to Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association.
The top three reasons given by members in the survey for leaving were low educator pay, working conditions and workload as well as health and safety.
“I think they certainly play out in a unique way in different parts of the state, but it was pretty consistent that those were the drivers of why people would consider leaving the profession,” Baca-Oehlert said. “When your workload is so tremendous, but you’re not making the salary where you can make ends meet. All of that added together, leads [teachers] to question, ‘Is it worth it to stay in the profession?’”
Locally, the Eagle County School district said that its turnover rate this year is at 10%. According to Adele Wilson, the district’s director of human resources, this number is average for the district. But that doesn’t mean the district isn’t facing problems around recruiting and retaining quality educators.
This year, following a year where no school or district leaders left, the district is losing some its top leaders and educators. This includes Eagle Valley Middle School Assistant Principal Harry McQueeney, Red Hill Elementary School Principal Eric Olsen, Eagle Valley Elementary School Principal Tiffany Dougherty, Executive Director of Exceptional Student Services Amy Kendiorski and Chief Communications Officer Dan Dougherty.
The salary balance
Similarly to Cahill, having a family was the reason Eagle Valley High School teacher John Hughes said he left the district and the county to teach in Kansas.
“It’s very difficult for regular people, with regular jobs, to maintain good housing, find good child care, just get any kind of assistance,” Hughes said of living and working in Eagle County. “When you have two kids, there’s just a whole snowball of things that make it not very good for families, all kind of centered around cost.”
Ultimately, after sitting on a waiting list for child care for over a year and struggling to strike the right balance, Hughes and his family departed to suburban Kansas. There, he said he will be able to make $15,000 to $20,000 more than he did and was able to purchase a home in the $250,000 to $350,000 range — something that was impossible for him while working for Eagle County Schools.
“Eagle County Schools has been a great employer, and I think they try very hard to put forth measures and salaries that will lead to retention,” Hughes said. “I think where they might be lacking a little foresight is when it comes to people who have kids. I’ve watched lots of colleagues have children and then head to the Midwest from which they came because they just can’t do it.”
The salaries are incredibly prohibitive for many teachers with such a high cost of living in the county.
“If we had a good enough pay for people to live here, I think that not only would the district be able to attract quality teachers, but they would have much better retention,” Cahill said. “It’s unrealistic and unfair.”
According to the district, 80% of its budget is allocated to staff salaries and benefits. But, if you ask most teachers in the district, they’ll still say they feel they are underpaid. Striking a balance is one that the district and its teacher’s union have worked hard to amend.
“I think [the school district is] trying to hear our voice and hear our side of things, but if they don’t have the money to help with what we need, then their hands are kind of tied,” Cahill said. “Our union does a really good job having those conversations with them of what we need, everything comes down to money. It’s more, not necessarily what [the district] can do, but what the community can do. We need to not vote no on the things that the school district is pushing forward.”
Dan Dougherty, chief communications officer for Eagle County Schools, said market conditions determine starting pay and pay ranges for all positions. “As an organization, we strive to be on the upside of competitive pay in order to attract and retain the best possible staff for our students,” he wrote in an email.
Over the past few years, the district has made several adjustments to attempt to alleviate the issues surrounding compensation. This includes, in 2019, moving to a step and lane salary schedule that is based on education level and experience; something that, according to Karen Kolibaba, president of the Eagle County Education Association and a fifth grade teacher at Gypsum Elementary School, led to a decrease in teacher turnover. Last year, during the pandemic, the district also approved an average 1.9% pay raise and also backed a local measure, the Mill Levy Override, to stabilize funding by making a permanent tax increase that initially had a sunset clause.
Earlier this year, the district and teacher’s union reached an agreement on salary step increases after tense negotiations. This agreement issued a 3.95% raise next year as well as one-time $1,000 bonuses to all staff. At the May 12 school board meeting, Superintendent Phillip Qualman called the agreed-upon improvements “modest,” and “something we’ll keep an eye on in the future to make sure we’re competitive with other districts.”
Kolibaba noted that in its negotiations this year, the Summit County school district raised its base pay by $5,000 more than Eagle County’s base pay.
“We’re definitely going to be competing with our surrounding districts, because they also have a really high cost of living. If you’re going to choose somewhere with a very high cost of living, you’re probably going to go somewhere with a higher base pay,” she said. “We make the choice to be here, but we would like to start to see those salaries keep up with inflation and honor the fact that we are professionals.”
And for Hughes, as well as other teachers who are also parents, there is still more than just salaries that the district needs to consider.
“Eagle County Schools tries to do a good job to get good teachers and to retain teachers, but ultimately, they’ll never retain as many teaches until they solve the child care problem, until they get more aggressive on housing and ultimately, pay people as much as you can. It’s a battle that they’re going to have to fight there,” he said. “If the cost of living and situation was different, I wouldn’t have left. I didn’t leave a job I didn’t like. I left because I had to for my kids.”
The housing play
The district is aware that the high cost of living, and lack of affordable housing inventory, presents its greatest challenge when hiring employees. In an effort to amend the issue, it created a housing master plan in April 2020. The main goal of the plan is to create 120 housing opportunities for district employees by 2030.
This plan, according to Qualman at the May 13 Board of Education Meeting is “is one of the most important things that we can be doing right now to ensure that we can attract quality educators to our community and keep them here.”
The district has made strides on its plan in recent months, most recently moving forward with Habitat for Humanity on the development of the 3rd Street Campus in Eagle. Nine of the 12 homes projected for the lot will be delegated to Eagle County school staff.
“Teaching is full of rewards. All teachers will say they aren’t in it for the money, but at the end of the day we need more money because the cost of living in Eagle County is outpacing the salaries of teachers,” wrote Todd Huck, a sixth grade science teacher and the athletic director at Berry Creek Middle School, in an email. “But until the state of Colorado fully funds education our district has its hands tied.”
For many, including Faith Engel, a Gypsum Creek Middle School social studies teacher, even though she is doing what she loves in a place she loves, it doesn’t pay enough to pay off student loans, retire comfortably or afford home ownership in the county.
Engel is just one of many teachers who has worked a second job just to make ends meet. Both Cahill and her fiancé also held secondary seasonal jobs prior to her leaving teaching. Huck spends his evenings working as a coach, leading inevitably to long days and nights. Kolibaba estimates that nearly 70% of Eagle County educators have second jobs. Those that don’t, she hypothesized, likely have a partner or spouse with a relatively high-paying job.
In her 13 years as a teacher — the last three of which were spent in Eagle County — Engel has worked as a bartender and cocktail waitress. In fact she was gearing up to work last summer at Juicy Lucy’s in Glenwood Springs when everything was shut down due to COVID-19.
“Luckily, there was nothing to spend money on either so I actually ended up doing very well,” she said. “The problem with the COVID situation was that my roommate collected unemployment and continues to make more money than I do.”
Even with these gigs — as well as incoming rent from a property she owns in Oklahoma — Engel lives with two roommates in a lock-off rental property.
“This is the only way I can really afford to live here,” Engel said.
Asking too much
Eagle County Schools’ reopening plan for this school year involved a slew of pandemic year formalities — revised class schedules, student cohorts, masks, social distancing and even temperature checks.
Engel was working this second job on top of her normal duties as a teacher, coaching volleyball and basketball for students and running an annual Geography Bee at the school. Teachers are asked to go above and beyond to ensure that the needs of the students, their families and the job are met, she said.
“The expectations coming from everybody are pretty intense,” Engel said. “You have to be firm with boundaries and in establishing what you’re willing to do. But new teachers cannot do that, they really do have to work 24/7.”
While Engel loves her job and working in Eagle County is her dream, she said the job isn’t sustainable for her going forward. With approximately $64,000 of student loan debt, Engel is waiting for her loan forgiveness to kick in before she goes back to school and pursues a career that will allow her to retire.
“When it comes time for retirement or stuff like that, I can’t be side hustling and what not to get through,” Engel said. “I did this to get my kids through school, to have the same vacations as them, to be able to be a single mom, but if I can’t stay in the career and retire, I’m going to have to move on.”
For Engel, her problems are less with the Eagle County School District and more with the industry and career as a whole. “There’s a lot of politics going on right now,” she said. “[The district] does try and accommodate. Personally, I don’t feel neglected in any way by the district.”
This issue of over-expecting and overburdening teachers was one that was exacerbated by the pandemic. For many, they were asked to step into additional roles and responsibilities.
“Even though, in the elementary and middle classrooms, we had significantly smaller class sizes, our roles were much more,” Kolibaba said. “I was their reading, writing, science, social studies, math teacher like I normally am, but I was also their art teacher — I literally was their everything teacher.”
Not only that, but if a teacher became sick, their colleagues had to step up and take on even more students and additional responsibilities. This was especially true for special education teachers and paraprofessionals who had to step outside of their normal boundaries this year, Kolibaba added.
But this issue of overburdening teachers was true before the pandemic.
“I don’t think that I’ve ever been in a situation where I haven’t been overburdened,” Hughes said. “I loved working for Eagle County Schools and I don’t think their problems are unique, but I do think they unintentionally overburden us when they take our focus off of the student and family.”
For Hughes, this included things like what he saw as a deluge of unnecessary meetings and professional development requirements with not enough time for important things like planning and collaboration between him and his colleagues.
“Some teachers spend 16 hour days at the school every day and it’s asking a lot to only get paid a very small amount,” Cahill said.
The district does have a number of ongoing efforts aimed at alleviating the burdens and addressing teacher burnout. According to Dougherty, this includes everything from free counseling, a wellness committee, encouraging teachers to use the outdoor amenities in the county and regularly reviewing teachers to catch burnout.
“This school year, we reminded staff that during the pandemic we were in a bit of triage mode,” he wrote. “We slowed down some initiatives, reduced meetings, advocated for less standardized testing, and emphasized taking care of ourselves mentally through available resources. Moving into next year, we remain focused on mental health and plan to emphasize the need to rekindle relationships, renew our passions in some cases and continue to use available resources to continue to heal and process the stress of the pandemic and needed to focus on the basics and prioritize student and staff mental health.”
Regardless, the big asks and high expectations of teachers, though not specific to Eagle County, are leading to issues of burnout, and in some cases, demoralization.
“I do think that we’re seeing a higher rate of teacher burnout. But it’s not just burnout, a lot of our teachers are feeling less burnout and more demoralization,” Kolibaba said. “The difference between burnout and demoralization is that in burnout, I can still see the reward of what I do as an educator. When teachers — and not just teachers but our paraprofessionals and staff — get to the point where we are no longer getting that reward and that relaxation, it really becomes a bigger issue.”
Statewide, Baca-Oehlert noted that this is a trend the Colorado Educator’s Association has been watching for years. “It doesn’t seem that the stress, the strain that our educators feel have lessened at all,” she said. “I think that oftentimes its not recognized that the educators are the closest to the students and to their experiences and when we’re advocating for our working conditions, we are also advocating for our student’s learning conditions, they are one and the same. We’re seeing many of our locals negotiating on those very things.”
So, as the school year comes to a close and another batch of high quality educators leaves the district for different opportunities, many will stay and help the students, and the community, recover from a challenging year, continuing to ask for bigger and better compensation, benefits and relationships.
“Many teachers would say this year was a challenge and at times it was, but overall the year was very rewarding. I completed an entire year teaching in person during a pandemic. I tried out new teaching techniques and grew as an educator,” Huck wrote. “I love my job and have had amazing experiences in the classroom, but I don’t think I would recommend teaching as a profession to anyone. It takes a very amazing and special person to handle the job of a teacher.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.