Departing Teachers Frustrated, Sad

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Four of the teachers leaving the Douglas County School District this year say frustration with pay and the school board pushed them out the doors.

“It used to be that teachers would be willing to leave their districts to come to Douglas County,” former Chaparral High School English teacher Brian Hire said. “Now we seem to be kind of the joke of the party. Friends in Cherry Creek (school district) say, ‘What’s going on there?’ I can’t imagine any experienced teacher would be willing to go to Douglas County to teach.”

Hire and his wife Jill, a Douglas County High School teacher, are going to teach overseas. While they’re excited about the dramatic change, the move wasn’t prompted by wanderlust.

“We made the decision to leave in November when the bond failed,” Jill Hire said. “There are a bunch of colleagues at Douglas County who would move on if they could, but they’ve got family, a mortgage, 20-some-years’ experience. There’s no place to go.

“There’s a climate of mistrust, a climate of fear. People are afraid for their jobs. It’s just not a healthy work environment.”

She faults the school board for helping to create that environment.

“I feel like they have a political agenda, and they want to disband the union for just the fact that it is a union,” she said.

Cuts in state funding forced teacher layoffs during the last four years, and that’s pushed class sizes to levels teachers and the district agree are unacceptable. During the most recent school year, Jill Hire said, one class was so large she regularly gave up her desk chair to a student, while another consistently sat on the floor.

But Hire does not believe the decision to add more classes and change the schedule at district high schools will decrease class sizes significantly or improve the situation for students. She won’t be here next year to find out if she’s right.

Becky Sickles, a special education teacher at Roxborough Primary and Intermediate School, said she got two offers to teach in other districts. Both offered her better pay.

“I know the school board keeps saying they want to pay their teachers the best,” she said. “But we’ve been hearing that for two years. They say they value and love teachers. But I’m not feeling the love.”

Douglas County High School science teacher Andy Caldwell has been working two jobs to make ends meet, teaching nights at Arapahoe Community College. He’s leaving the district after 13 years to teach at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins. Though the workload’s been excessive, he also wants his daughter to start her education somewhere else.

“A few years ago, I would never have said that,” Caldwell said. “My daughter had a great teacher this year, but I just don’t see that as something that’s sustainable. It’s not a place I want her to grow up in.

“I love Douglas County Schools. It’s hard to watch it come apart.”

Caldwell believes the district began to change a few years ago.

“I hate to point fingers, but the incoming school board kind of set a tone of not supporting teachers. That’s when we started taking wage freezes. Then they cut our health benefits. You could just start to see morale going down.”

The stress of juggling two jobs and tension at the high school took a physical toll, too. For the first time in his life, Caldwell started taking an antidepressant.

“I’m already feeling a little better,” he said, “like a weight’s been lifted. It’s awful to say, but I really have a new fire in my belly.”