Garfield Re-2 school board candidates unanimously took a “pay-our-teachers-more” angle Thursday evening in response to hot-button issues like employee retention and affordable housing addressed during a forum hosted by the Western Garfield County Education Association at Silt Branch Library.
With Nov. 2 marking Election Day, five people currently vie for one of three eligible spots on the board.
Re-2 District B incumbent Jason Shoup is running uncontested for a two-year term.
District A, held by four-year-term board member Tom Slappey, pits candidates Britton Fletchall against Jessica Paugh.
District E, held for four-year-term board member Anne Guettler, pits candidates Lauren Caitlyn Carey against Tony May.
“How can we pay people to have a living wage in this community? I know for myself, my wife, we both work full time to make ends meet here,” Fletchall said. “Would it be working with the HR department, and finding out why only can we not recruit teachers in, but why are we losing teachers out? I’d like to see a little more of the exit interviews.”
When it comes to employee recruiting and retention, an issue not exclusive to the district but affecting many school districts across the country, Paugh said updating the district’s out-of-date strategic plan would be a good place to start.
“A strategic plan can help identify where funds should be going,” she said. “And perhaps, it’s teacher salaries and classified staff salaries. A couple other things that can happen without a lot of dollars attached — what are the pathways to growth for both the teaching staff and the classified staff?”
Though Carey acknowledged the potential benefit of increasing employee salaries as a way to bolster recruitment and retention, she offered an additional, more organic approach: starting an in-house intern program.
Carey suggested older students could read to and work with younger counterparts.
“I would really like to see a grow-your-own type program, because we’ve got amazing kids in our school district, and we’ve got amazing teachers to show them the ropes,” she said. “This would also solve a problem that we have with having Latino representation. In our schools, as educators, I think, it would bring a great deal of value to our school system, and it would bring a great deal of honor to our community.”
Shoup said the district could bring in third-party analysts to identify competitive wages, while the district could explore creating employee-housing opportunities using land currently owned by Re-2.
“It’s almost just as expensive to live here as it is in Carbondale and Basalt, and it just keeps going up,” Shoup said. “And these young individuals, fresh out of school, just absolutely can’t afford that. So, one of the other ideas that I was kind of thinking of is possibly partnering with somebody or utilizing some of the district’s unused land that they have right now and look at doing some staff and teacher housing.”
With the goal of increasing employee pay and salaries, May said the district should try to ensure it benefits from bills recently passed by state congress. This includes House Bills 21-1164 and 21-1312 — proposals aimed at tax credits and exemptions.
“It’s going to change our tax structure,” May said. “If there is additional money that comes out of that, I would support that revenue going toward teacher salaries.”
The learning environment at Garfield Re-2 has seen new regulations geared toward combating the spread of COVID-19. For example, recently implementing mask requirements at all schools has been called into question by the general public.
The preventative measure has also sparked questions on the level of communication the district provides staff and the general public.
Responding to a question regarding the public perception of Re-2’s learning environment, Paugh said she intends to bridge the divide between what’s actually happening in the classroom and what people are talking about.
“To what extent do I believe that teachers and staff have input and voice? As much as they want and probably more,” Paugh said. “I think that any decision made with the school board in a silo is not a good one.”
Speaking to some of the major decisions made by the district, Shoup said there has been a lack of community engagement and communication between district officials and constituents.
Shoup said the district should host larger, open-forum venues when bigger decisions are on the agenda.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re always going to appease everybody. It’s kind of tough because you end up with passionate people on both sides of the fence, and in an open setting things are really easy to get out of control,” Shoup said. “But, I think that community involvement and the community feeling heard is absolutely essential.”
Carey said she wants teachers to feel welcome to approach board members.
“I think we’ve got to find a way to have those conversations that are hard and to have them with compassion and respect,” Carey said.
“Some of these decisions are going to render us unpopular, but that’s what has to be done,” she added. “This is our generation’s turn to lead with respect and compassion, and we have to step up and do it.”
Fletchall echoed Shoup’s sentiment on district communication.
“I think one of the biggest things that I hear is that the board is not communicating with the public,” Fletchall said. “We’re in a forum where people are responding, asking a question, and they get nothing that blank stares. It’s frustrating.”
“When we have those format forums like that, I would like to see more people from the community or somehow we bring smaller groups together, then we can offer solutions,” he added, “not just regurgitate the problem over and over again.”
May said the current Re-2 board is doing a wonderful job trying to navigate through the pandemic and trying to keep kids learning in-person. But, May also suggested there needs to be more communication between the Latino community.
“With the Latino community, I’ve talked to them. I said, ‘I support you. I want to help you with this issue of communication between your families and the school district,’” he said. “So I think that’s very important. We can’t allow people to just live in fear, for whatever reason it may be.”
Paugh said he/she recognizes that decisions must be made, but as to why the decision was made needs to be better conveyed.
Paugh said that’s part of the transparency and accountability she hears is lacking with the current school board.
“There are a lot of formal ways to communicate with the school board. However, that’s not always the most fun,” she said. “Having the school board members go out into the schools more, so that we can hear from you in your world where you are comfortable.”
“Going to you, having a cup of coffee and just having a conversation where you feel comfortable with school board members,” she added. “We’re here to listen and to do something about it.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org