How a $621 million cut in state spending on education threatens a community’s efforts to close its education gap and digital divide

Emily Hayes

Tigo Cruz wears a dusty green baseball cap with the town Mancos scrawled across the front and a button-down blue shirt untucked from khaki pants.

He’s driving his big black SUV down a gravelly dirt road near the Mancos Early Learning Center. It’s the car he lived out of for a year and a half before upgrading to a camper parked on his friend’s property in nearby Hesperus.

Cruz is a paraprofessional preschool teacher. But even with an additional part-time job at Fenceline Cider & Wine, he can’t afford a place to live in one of the least-developed areas of Colorado.

Sitting at an outdoor table at a coffee shop run out of a garage, Cruz talks about his students and the holistic approach the Mancos School District takes to educate the whole child: academically, socially and emotionally.

When education was practically halted around the world by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps no other students were impacted more than those in rural areas. In the southwestern corner of Colorado, when the wind blows too hard, the internet can go out.

These challenges didn’t hinder Cruz and his colleagues from connecting with students through printed materials or YouTube videos they put together on the fly.

But a $621 million reduction in spending on education might.

Preschool teachers like Cruz, including those with master’s degrees, make only 60% of what a kindergarten teacher makes in the school district. But K-12 teachers themselves receive a salary only just above minimum wage.

A survey from 2017 found that 94% of the school districts in Colorado paid teachers an average salary below the cost of living in those districts, even before the pandemic hit.

But with significantly lower tax revenue from the COVID-19 shutdown, the state legislature made unprecedented cuts to the next fiscal year budget for education. Teachers like Cruz are getting creative in solving the education gap between kids in remote, rural areas and kids in Denver, but their efforts could be dismantled if these underfunded schools lose state support.

Tigo Cruz stands in front of the Mancos Early Learning Center, where he works as a paraprofessional preschool teacher. Even with an additional job at the local bar Fenceline Cider & Wine, he can’t afford a place to live in one of the least-developed areas of Colorado.

Classes went online, and so did mental health counseling

To the east, the city of Durango is known for being a wealthier school district compared to the rest of Southwest Colorado. Still, the school district lost $6 million in state funding.

“We have been underfunded in this state for a very long time,” said Celeste Dunlop, a special education teacher at Florida Mesa Elementary School.

Durango is also not immune to rising levels of depression and anxiety in rural Colorado students, heightened by the isolation of at-home learning during the pandemic.

Over Dunlop’s 20-year career with the Durango School District, the number of students she works with who struggle with severe emotional disabilities has only increased. In neighboring Bayfield further east, guidance counselors Amy Miglinas and Jennifer Leithauser said they’ve noticed the same growth.

When the school buildings closed and districts pivoted to online learning, Dunlop knew she would have to be creative in providing mental health support for students. She decided to record herself talking to students to calm them down on an app called Marco Polo, which parents could play if the student was feeling panicked or had too much energy.

But some students don’t have internet at home to access the help Dunlop provided through the app.

One parent had internet access at work, so she downloaded the video there to play for her child at home, Dunlop said.

Celeste Dunlop, special education teacher for Florida Mesa Elementary School in Durango, stands in front of her closed classroom. The COVID-19 pandemic practically halted education, and the school district lost $6 million in state funding.

“Overall, our staff did an amazing job communicating with families, but the larger school district didn’t have the same opportunities,” Dunlop said. This is due in part to the even smaller budgets other schools in this area have to work with.

Bayfield High School was able to provide Google Chromebook laptops to the students. For some of those students, it was the only computer in their house, school counselor Miglinas said. But if students don’t have access to reliable internet connectivity, the Chromebooks are useless.

Even schools in Southwest Colorado lucky enough to provide these resources for students are already feeling the ripple effects of budget cuts at the state level. School boards are scrambling to determine the best way to absorb the shock to their budgets while maintaining staff and the necessary internet and mental health support for students.

And it is still unknown whether schools can offer in-person classes in the fall as the shadow of a possible resurgence of COVID-19 cases lingers over the United States.

The economic blow to the Southwest, which relies heavily on tourism, has left many parents without work. Some are moving where jobs are available, meaning fewer students in the rural schools. With fewer students, those schools receive less funding.

At least 80 families have already alerted the Durango School District their children won’t be returning in the fall, not including the parents that didn’t respond to the survey at all, said public information officer for the district Julie Popp.

Even with about 5,500 total students in the district, this makes a difference. The schools receive a total of $12,000 in funding per student from the district, Popp said. The loss of 80 students adds up to $960,000 less in funding.

The cost of the digital divide

Unreliable internet access, as well as feelings of isolation, often fall along socio-economic lines, Dunlop said.

“If parents are working two to three jobs, internet isn’t a priority,” Dunlop said.

Between the video lectures and online test-taking students needed to complete during the COVID-19 shutdown, along with the online research students normally need to do for homework assignments on a regular basis, broadband is becoming a necessity, Miglinas, a counselor from Bayfield, said. Without it, rural students have a disadvantage in access to higher education and meeting university and high school standards.

COVID-19 has only highlighted this new reality for everyone in the region. But state cuts in spending on education leave school districts with fewer resources to give their students the physical tools they need to thrive academically, compared to children who grow up in cities or more developed areas, Miglinas said.

Jessica Dunbar, a resident in Ignacio further east, has a son who is in eighth grade at Ignacio Middle School. Her son and his friends have been honor roll students throughout their middle school experience, but they felt the online workload was heavier and harder during COVID-19 than normal, in-person classes.

“It was difficult for them to complete with little direction from the teachers,” Dunbar said in an email.

Despite completing all of their work, though some of it was not on time, Dunbar’s son and his friends did not receive credit for the classes they took during the pandemic.

“We were able to access the internet, however I am a single mom and cannot afford to pay for internet, so we had to ask neighbors to use theirs,” Dunbar said. She worries budget cuts will mean less pay for teachers, and the quality of the school will drop.

“The bigger the class, the less attention each child will receive and that will more than likely affect their success in that class,” Dunbar said.

Use the map above to explore where each community mentioned in the article is located.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe forging a path forward

To the west of Ignacio, past Durango, is the Montezuma-Cortez School District. Over 500 students from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s reservation and surrounding communities are bused to these schools each morning, but the tribe has been working to develop their own charter school, the Kwiyagat ("Bear") Community Academy, so students can stay within their community.

But if less money flows from the state budget to Montezuma-Cortez schools and other surrounding districts, it could translate to less funding for the Kwiyagat Community Academy, even though the school is entitled to Title XI and Title I funds from the federal government as a tribal entity.

Schools in the area receive funding from the local level and the state level based on the number of students enrolled. For example, schools in the Montezuma-Cortez district receive $8,000 per student. A portion of the total budget for each school district comes from the state.

After the deepest cuts to the state budget in history with COVID-19, the $8,000 amount could be lower next year. If the tribe’s charter school starts with 30 students as planned, that equates to $240,000 in funding, without the impact of COVID-19.

But the costs associated with running schools are endless, including teacher pay, insurance, facilities, safety measures and more.

“Yes, less money will make it hard to start a school,” said Richard Fulton, recently retired dean of the school of education at Fort Lewis College in Durango. But as a former charter school principal, he is helping the tribe do it.

“Even without COVID, it is a challenge,” Fulton said.

Many nonprofits and grants have turned all their attention on COVID-19 relief efforts.

Why it matters

For the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, funding for the Kwiyagat Community Academy will help them strengthen their community and solve problems their students encounter in the education system — problems that were only exacerbated by COVID-19.

Bias, cultural misunderstandings and sometimes racism in the surrounding school districts are barriers that often keep Ute Mountain Ute Tribe students from thriving academically and socially.

“Even though the schools have attempted to make it feel like their school, it doesn’t feel like their school,” Tina King-Washington, education director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said.

Just over 6,000 of Colorado’s 913,000 students identify as Native American. In the Montezuma-Cortez School District, about 30% of the student population is Native American. But they make up 52% of the suspensions in the elementary school, 55% in the middle school and 51% at the high school, according to data released by the district last year.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, even at the national level, Native American students are five times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

The disproportionate representation of Native American students in suspension rates mainly comes down to cultural misunderstandings and bias between teachers and their students, King-Washington said, signaling a need for cultural training in the schools. It can also signal home issues that need to be addressed.

“We have kids who get expelled, and we work with the schools to get the students back into school,” King-Washington said.

But when those same students start working with the K-12 education staff with the tribe in Towaoc, it can make a huge difference in their attitude and mental health.

“Our kids are just like other kids,” King-Washington said. But teachers are overwhelmed and not supervising children in their classrooms as well as they should, which leads to bullying and sometimes racism that gets overlooked by some teachers, King-Washington said.

Tina King-Washington, education director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, sits at her desk in the Education Department on the reservation. She is working with other tribal leaders to open the Kwiyagat Community Academy.

And while overall test scores are rising for Native American and non-Native students in Montezuma-Cortez schools, math performance is still an area of concern. In the 2018-19 school year, 8% of Native American students in elementary schools performed at or above grade level on the standardized test. Non-Native American students performed at grade level 27% of the time.

At the high school, 7% of Native students were “college-ready” for math, while 28% of non-Natives were “college-ready” for math, according to data released by the school district.

But research shows that students learning outside of their cultural context have a harder time speaking up and participating, particularly if they feel they are targeted for bullying based on their ethnicity by other students.

The Bayfield School District created the Native American Parent Advisory Committee with federal funding from a Title VI Indian Education Grant. The committee consists of five Native American parents who have children in the Bayfield School District, a teacher, a high school student and the Southern Ute Education Department director. The committee decides how the federal funding to support Native American students is spent.

The school district received just under $14,000 for the coming school year.

“We have quite a few goals,” said Danielle Coronado, vice president of the committee, such as increasing higher education opportunities for all Native American students and bringing awareness of the diversity that exists in the Bayfield School District.

“Most people don’t know that there are 13 different tribes represented in the school district,” Coronado said.

This past school year, the committee allocated all of the funding to one-on-one tutoring for Native American students, including money for transportation home. The committee also sought funding from the parent teacher association to host a cultural event, open to everyone, that would have included cultural food, music and dancing, but the event was canceled after the outbreak of COVID-19.

These events are important because they give people an opportunity to learn about cultural differences, as many Native American cultural beliefs are misunderstood, Coronado said.

In college, a professor once threatened to fail Coronado because she did not make prolonged eye contact. Coronado tried to explain that continued eye contact is considered disrespectful to both her and the other person in her culture, but the professor was not understanding of this cultural belief.

“I hope our students in the Bayfield School District don’t have to experience this in their future,” Coronado said.

For Coronado, the committee for Native American students and parents is not to pit people against each other. It is an outlet for Native American students to be proud of where they come from, receive educational support and be free to express their cultural beliefs. She said the Bayfield School District does a great job of incorporating cultural training and has been a great support of the committee.

“We all come from different upbringings, and that’s something to be proud of,” Coronado said.

She encourages everyone to attend the committee meetings, which are open to the public, so they can have a “better understanding of the diversity the Bayfield School District has and the educational options that are available to these students,” Coronado said.

King-Washington and other Ute Mountain Ute Tribe educators decided to build on the strengths their community has to offer to develop the Kwiyagat Community Academy, which plans to open to students in 2021. As more schools question the effectiveness of test-based learning, the tribe’s charter school will offer group-based projects and learning that will better prepare students for working in the real world, King-Washington said.

Working in groups will also foster a sense of family and community that combats the issues of isolation or depression that are prominent in this region of the state, King-Washington said.

The school is about “building up our kids, their identity and their confidence in themselves,” said Sherrell Lang, another leader on the school project.

The charter school will start with two grades, kindergarten and first grade. That way, kids attending the Head Start preschool on the reservation can easily transition into the charter school.

Photographs of students from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe who were close to members of the Education Department but have since passed away hang on the wall in the office. Two of the students committed suicide last year.

King-Washington wanted to start with middle school students, because that is where the kids “start losing ground” compared to some of their white peers, she said. However, the charter school will start students at the kindergarten level and build slowly with that class to ensure a good foundation for the students who attend, King-Washington said.

The Kwiyagat Community Academy will have a separate room for tribe elders to tell stories and help teach the students, as well as help them understand who they are, King-Washington said.

The elders know a lot about Ute culture and tradition, but the younger generations don’t yet know that history. Inclusion of the elders in the charter school is an opportunity for the younger generations to learn oral history and traditions before their elders pass away, which is more sacred to Ute tribal members than written texts.

And culture-based learning benefits students both mentally and academically.

“Language and culture are very important to us,” Tribal Chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Manuel Heart said. He encourages the young people to wear two shoes, one moccasin and one regular shoe, as they look to the future.

“The better they can relate to the subject matter, the better students do,” Fulton, former dean of education at Fort Lewis College, said.

Here’s how Fulton explains it: if a teacher asks young students to count how many hippopotamuses they see, it’s difficult to conceptualize because the students have never seen a hippopotamus. But if the teacher asks the students how many horses they see, and can tie in why horses are important to their society, the students are more engaged.

Fulton was previously a teacher at Southwest Open School in Montezuma-Cortez. Some of the students would drive from the reservation early in the morning. One young man described his experience leaving the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and arriving in Cortez like “driving through a veil,” leaving home behind and reorienting to the Anglo culture and way of being.

People in the surrounding community question why the tribe wants to remove their children from public schools, where they can interact with children outside of the reservation. But King-Washington said she believes the charter school would create a community and culture-based learning environment for Ute Mountain Ute Tribe children. The school will incorporate their language, culture and history while allowing the students to participate in sports with the public school districts. The faculty will include certified Native American teachers are qualified to teach their culture and impress a different worldview on the children.

“We are not trying to segregate them, we are trying to help them grow up in a safe and cultural environment,” King-Washington said.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart sits at his desk in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Office. The Ute Mountain Ute tribal flag hangs in the background. As a sovereign nation, the tribe is working toward self-sufficiency, including in education, Heart said.

Heart, chairman of the tribe, said that as a sovereign nation, “if we can be self-sufficient, we can live how we used to live.”

There are traditions unique to each tribe, traditions that the local school district can’t teach Native American students. Hunting and harvesting certain plants, vegetables and fruits while explaining their cultural significance are lessons the tribe can teach its children as part of the school curriculum outside of the classroom, in the wilderness.

“Society has become so fast-paced, we need to balance it for all our people,” Heart said.

The design team for Kwiyagat Community Academy filed a first draft of the application for the school in June.

Despite the apparent financial needs of the tribe, Heart and other leaders have to constantly educate U.S. Congress about these issues, and jump through hoops to acquire funding and support, he said.

“The states think they are above the tribes, but we are equal,” Heart said.

He sees COVID-19’s impact on education as an opportunity to incorporate the new reality of virtual learning in the tribe, Heart said. He is working with U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on drafting a broadband bill specific to tribes, which would improve both education and telemedicine for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Ernest House, Jr., a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and senior policy director for the Keystone Policy Center in Denver, said the goal of the school is to teach Ute history, language and culture before it is lost.

The language of the Utes is Shoshonean, which is a dialect of the Uto-Aztecan language, but only 15% of the total tribal population converses in the language today. In the national push to revitalize native cultures and language, charter schools are a way to accomplish this objective.

“This brings the opportunity to the tribe to be the voice, to have them drive how that history and culture is being taught,” House said. He is reaching out to foundations to gauge their interest in donating grant funding for the school.

The Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, serves as an example of the difference a tribe-led school can make for its students.

The school was so successful that the academy started a network to support other Indigenous charter schools, called the NACA Inspired Schools Network, where Lang, a leader at the Kwiyagatu Community Academy, is a fellow.

For Anpao Duta Flying Earth, acting executive director of the NACA Inspired Schools Network and executive director of NACA itself, what stood out about the charter school was the “tribal support of the effort.”

Lang said of course parents want their children to succeed, but they also want the cultural piece that the Kwiyagat Community Academy will be able to provide.

“When we are looking at culture and language, it is healing, stories and a way of life,” Lang said.

And preparation for college and culture are not mutually exclusive things, Flying Earth said.

“That is a core paradigm of our operation,” Flying Earth said. “Students solidify the strength of their identities through their education.”

The school is also a place that can connect parents to services from the tribal department.

“I think the most important thing is that the school is being established because of the strengths the community has to offer,” Lang said. The creation of Kwiyagat Community Academy is led by the community as a whole, and offers integrated cultural practices such as song, prayer and smudging.

The school will also use the land as a teacher, promoting experiential learning that inspires healing and connection between students.

“I can’t explain how much I’ve learned from the people I’ve met and work with,” Lang said of her experience developing the school. “Our communities have everything they need to thrive, heal and grow.”

The NACA Inspired Schools Network is providing some funding and guidance for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s charter school.

“Every little dime matters…money is always a struggle,” King-Washington said.

The Colorado Charter School Institute is also providing some funding for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to create Kwiyagat Community Academy. But other than a few foundations that are considering supporting the school, the budget remains a concern for King-Washington.

Broadband also needed for Ute Mountain Ute Tribe

Reliable internet access is also a problem for certain communities in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Tools like FaceTime or Zoom, which school districts and therapists used for live sessions with tribal members, can burn through a month’s worth of data, said Todd Giesen, Mógúán Behavioral Health Project Director. He worked to set up telehealth support for the tribe during the pandemic.

“Broadband is not in Indian Country,” Ernest House, Jr., senior policy director of the Keystone Policy Center, said. But the pandemic has posed questions about what success for the students and the tribe looks like going forward, particularly regarding broadband infrastructure, House said.

The tribe has been able to work with Verizon to provide routers that service entire remote communities like Mancos Creek and White Mesa. But other long-term options for larger communities require costly infrastructure and manpower, such as installing fiber-optic cables.

Many schools in the surrounding districts allowed students to park near the school to use its Wi-Fi. The charter school could serve as that resource for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, since it would be on the reservation and much closer for families to drive to than the Montezuma-Cortez schools.

While the tribe is working on getting new fiber cables through the reservation, “it’s not just a tribal endeavor, we need government partners,” Giesen said.

But the state’s cut on spending for education leaves leaders like King-Washington concerned for the future — not only for their students, but for their communities.

Two graduating seniors from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Dayze Angel and Marcaus Cook, relied on the Education Department's office on the reservation for access to the internet when their classes went online this past semester.

“But when everything started getting shut down [on the reservation], we couldn’t come here anymore to do classes,” Angel said.

Now, she and Cook are taking online summer classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day to make up for what they missed when they couldn’t log on. Recently, they’ve only worked until 2 p.m., because that is when the Education Department office closes.

Dayze Angel and Marcaus Cook, two graduating seniors, rely on the Education Department for internet access to finish their summer classes. Angel and Cook were unable to complete online assignments during the COVID-19 shutdown because the Education Department was closed.

Education budget could drop another $491 million

Many see a viable solution to education budget shortfalls in dismantling controversial pieces of Colorado legislation, particularly the Gallagher Amendment, a provision Colorado adopted in 1982 that limits property taxes in the state.

The amendment limits taxes collected on residential properties to be no more than 45% of statewide property tax collections. The other 55% comes from non-residential property, such as commercial buildings and oil and gas.

The amendment also includes a flexible residential assessment rate — the percentage of a home’s total value that is subject to property taxes. When the Gallagher Amendment was first passed, the assessment rate was 21%, meaning a home worth $100,000 would only pay property taxes on $21,000. Meanwhile, non-residential properties — the 55% part of the split — were taxed at a fixed assessment rate of 29%.

Soaring home values over the last 40 years have triggered residential tax savings in order to maintain the 45-55 split. As residential property values have rapidly increased in Colorado, the assessment rate has fallen from 21% to 7.15%.

This year, though home values are rising, it’s a steep drop in business values, as well as oil and gas, from the current economic downturn that’s expected to cause residential tax savings. Until now, industries like oil and gas had been preventing deeper tax cuts.

Overall, the amendment has saved Colorado homeowners $35 billion in property taxes since its passage, while leaving businesses taxed at four times the rate of homeowners.

The Gallagher Amendment affects different communities in different ways, distributing benefits and downsides unequally across the state. That’s because the amendment triggers residential property tax savings based on a statewide calculation, without consideration to what’s actually happening to individual homeowners or funding for services like education in individual communities.

Additionally, if local business is down then there are fewer employment opportunities and people move out of the area to where they can find work. Already, the Durango School District is anticipating a 200-student decline in enrollment as parents move to find a job after the economic toll of COVID-19.

When residents move out of the area, there are fewer people buying and renting, so the total value of property in the state goes down.

This year, because of the limitations on property taxes in the Gallagher Amendment, homeowners could see an 18% increase in property tax savings. The resulting decrease in tax revenue could mean an additional $491 million in cuts to schools beyond the $621 million already cut by the state.

When the Gallagher Amendment was first adopted, local property taxes funded 60% of education, and the state general fund provided the remaining 40% of the funding for K-12 schools.

However, with decreasing property tax revenue, roles have reversed, and the state has been required to fill a growing gap in funding for schools. The state now provides 60% of funding for schools, with local property taxes providing 40% of the funding for K-12 schools.

With state spending cuts to education after COVID-19, increasing property taxes could be a solution to keep schools funded.

But in rural areas like the Southwest, homeowners have benefited tremendously from this tax relief, despite increasing development in places like Durango. These homeowners now pay among the lowest effective property tax rates in the country, but it has steadily increased the tax burden on businesses that were hit hard by the lack of tourists visiting Colorado’s national parks and ski resorts this past spring.

Desperate to prevent further damage to education funding, lawmakers in Colorado, including Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, and Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, are pushing for repeal of the amendment.

“Our property taxes will go so low, there will be no state funding to fall back on,” Colorado Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, said.

So McLachlan and other state lawmakers voted to include a ballot measure in the upcoming November election that would ask voters if they want to repeal the Gallagher Amendment.

Colorado is generally a tax-averse state, but voters will now decide whether to repeal the amendment and, by extension, whether to allow the deep cuts to education given the significant loss in state funds. But in the middle of the economic crisis COVID-19 initiated, many taxpayers in rural Colorado might not be able to afford the tax increase that would come with repealing the amendment.

“None of us like to pay more taxes, so businesses are excited, but most people aren’t excited,” said John Wells, broker and owner of Wells Group Real Estate in Durango.

Furthermore, rent prices in Durango are only increasing. If property taxes drive them up more, much of the local workforce could be lost. But services like schools, hospitals and firefighting are being cut because of the limit on local funds.

“There is no perfect answer or perfect solution,” Wells said.

An empty playground in the Montezuma-Cortez School District. The Gallagher Amendment could cause an 18% residential property tax cut this year, which would mean an additional $491 million in cuts to schools beyond the $621 state cut in spending.

Montezuma County’s teacher turnover problem

The short-term benefits to property owners through the Gallagher Amendment, especially during the COVID-19 downturn in the economy, can harm communities in Southwest Colorado in the long run.

Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy, said there are “pretty consistent findings that budget cuts [to education] tend to disadvantage communities.”

“And places that have lower property values have a higher reliance on state support,” Hansen said.

Teaching staff in under-resourced areas like Southwest Colorado tend to be younger and have a high turnover rate because of the low pay. In Montezuma County, teachers are quitting or moving to the Durango School District at a rapid rate for higher salaries once they gain a few years of experience.

That high turnover rate is expensive for school districts and bad for students, Hansen said.

The schools with the biggest need for teachers, such as those in the remote Southwest, lost 10% of their workforce during the Great Recession, and it is “certainly going to happen again with COVID,” Hansen said.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, almost 9,000 teaching and school psychologist specialist positions needed to be filled for the 2018-19 school year, representing 14% of all teaching and 19% of all school psychologist positions in the state.

Of the 7,773 total teaching positions, 264 remained unfilled for the school year and 933 were filled through a shortage mechanism, such as hiring long-term substitutes and retired school teachers.

Of the 1,177 total school psychologist positions to hire, 103 remained unfilled for the school year and 91 were filled through a similar shortage mechanism.

This was the first survey of its kind in Colorado, created to address the teacher shortage. But an initial survey from the Department of Education in 2017 found that 81% of urban/suburban school districts and 85% of rural districts that chose to respond received fewer applications from qualified candidates than they normally do for open positions.

The state estimates the shortage is felt more strongly in rural areas like the Southwest. Despite that need, the number of students graduating from education programs at Colorado’s colleges and universities dropped in 2016 more than 24% , down to 2,472 from 3,274 in 2011.

But many student teachers in the state aren’t paid for the hours they invest in the classroom, including lesson planning, teaching and grading, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Working a full-time job for free makes it difficult for student teachers to make ends meet, especially if they are paying college tuition. This imposes a financial barrier for students who want to become teachers in low-income rural areas.

And once they become teachers, the pay remains low. Many teachers in the Four Corners remain under constant financial stress. In the Montezuma-Cortez School District, the average teacher salary is $39,752. The Mancos School District is slightly higher at $43,473, but both are just about minimum wage.

As higher Durango living prices seep into smaller, more rural towns like Mancos and Cortez, pay for jobs like teaching does not increase to match it, reliant as it is on the local and state governments.

With lower numbers of teachers, some rural schools are pulling in substitute or volunteer teachers who aren’t trained on how to handle or work with children in a classroom.

Dunlop, the special education teacher at Florida Mesa Elementary School, said having small class sizes makes it easier to check in individually with students during remote learning. If teachers are laid off, those class sizes will grow, to the detriment of the students’ education, Hansen said.

Even the Durango School District instituted a hiring freeze due to the state spending cuts.

Florida Mesa Elementary School sits empty in Durango. In Montezuma County, teachers are quitting or moving to the Durango School District at a rapid rate for higher salaries once they gain a few years of experience.

The long-term effects of cutting spending on education

“As we spend less on education, we tend to have fewer high school graduates,” Hansen said. Not graduating from high school can affect children by making it more likely they end up in the criminal justice system, which is also disproportionately true for students of color.

Whether students graduate can also be a determining factor in whether they contribute to or are a burden on the state tax base when it comes to things like unemployment, welfare and jail costs.

“There are a number of bad or negative things that happen when you divest from education,” Hansen said.

If the Gallagher Amendment is repealed, Dunlop, the special education teacher at Florida Mesa Elementary School, said it would do more than allow teachers to have a livable wage.

“We could talk about mental health access… we could talk about providing us with more opportunities for professional development so that we can support our students here,” Dunlop said, instead of having students travel the seven hours to Denver or Colorado Springs.

“I just think about how amazing and fantastic our staff is already with this limited budget,” Dunlop said, “and if we were able to increase those opportunities, it just blows my mind in what we would be able to provide.”

For Cruz, the paraprofessional teacher in Mancos who is helping to fill the teacher shortage, it would also mean that teachers get paid a livable wage.

“I want all of us to be paid to where we can have off on the weekends, we don’t have to hold two to three jobs,” Cruz said.

After living in a car and a camper for the last two years, Cruz said he wants to look forward to buying a house one day.

And he wants to look forward to having a family.

And he wants to be paid enough.

So it’s “not always stressful about how I’m going to make ends meet, and that I can relax and learn to live a thriving life.”

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