a large group of teachers holding signs protesting in downtown Denver
The push for higher teacher salaries in Colorado is far from new. Teachers and their supporters from Douglas and Jefferson counties cheer during a teacher rally in Denver at the state Capitol in 2018. Since then, teacher pay has been an ongoing concern and political issue facing many metro area school districts. / Sentinel Colorado file photo

Ali Lombard has wanted to be a teacher since she was a little kid. She said it is her calling. 

“My favorite part about being a teacher is the relationships with kids,” she said. “I’m sure all of us as adults have teachers that we can remember.”

Now in her 10th year, Lombard teaches fifth graders at Fox Hollow Elementary School in the Cherry Creek School District. However, her dream career has been clouded with obstacles, primarily money. 

Low salaries and more responsibilities amid the rising cost of living have pushed teachers like Lombard out of one Colorado school district in search of another, leaving some school systems struggling to attract and retain educators. Turnover rates in several metro-area districts are hovering between 13%-21%.

That’s higher than the national average teacher turnover rate, which was 10% by the end of the 2021-22 school year, according to a report by RAND Corp., a nonprofit policy think tank based in California. RAND also reported that the turnover rate was highest, approximately 12%-14%, in “urban districts, high poverty districts, and districts serving predominantly students of color.”

Across Colorado, the turnover picture is bleaker than that in many school districts.

That’s according to the most recent data from the Colorado Department of Education, which compares the 2022-23 and 2021-22 school years. 

In the Denver metro area, where districts can employ hundreds of teachers, turnover rates look like this: 

Education and national experts say some of the turnover is driven by teachers searching for bigger paychecks.

As an experienced teacher with a master’s degree, Lombard said she was searching for a salary that “reflected a little bit more of [her] professional capacity.”

And, Lombard echoed what many teachers and their unions have said in recent years: teacher responsibilities have multiplied. For instance, teachers often act as the classroom’s social worker and psychologist, work that’s become more necessary as some students face difficulties regulating their emotions and working on their social skills due to years of pandemic-related isolation and learning gaps. 

“The expectations have grown,” Lombard said. “Our compensation has not, unfortunately.”

So, she left her previous job in the Douglas County School District in favor of Cherry Creek, where she saw a salary bump of $15,000 a year. 

No state law nor agency regulates teachers' salaries, so they vary among school districts. There is also no statewide minimum pay for educators.

The salary for entry-level teachers in Douglas County is currently the lowest among school districts in the Denver metro area. An entry-level teacher with a bachelor’s degree is paid per year, according to the district’s salary schedule.

The salaries for first-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree in other metro area districts are thousands of dollars per year higher:

Salaries for a first-year teacher with a master’s degree are even higher:

Third grade teacher Susan Fairchild said that while test scores are high in Douglas County School District, they might eventually come down if the district loses too many experienced teachers and can’t attract talented new ones.

Josh Miller, the principal of Parker’s Cherokee Trail Elementary School, said the pay discrepancy hits the district in what he called the “sweet spot.” That’s where there’s a high number of teachers with experience ranging from two to three years up through those nearing retirement who could be lured away.

“Other school districts are in the same ballpark as we are, so a lot of people are struggling in some of those areas, but again, we have the added need for more competitive pay,” Douglas County School District’s Chief Human Resources Officer Amanda Thompson told her school board in September.

With concerns like those as the backdrop, voters on Nov. 7 narrowly approved a $66-million-a-year package to increase pay for Douglas County School District teachers and staff.

a red car with writing on the window supporting teacher issues.
Voters on Nov. 7 approved a $66 million annual increase for Douglas County School District teachers and staff. Ballot Issue 5A and 5B goes into effect next year. / Thelma Grimes, Colorado Community Media

Douglas County Federation, the union that represents teachers in the district, cheered the results. 

“We're so pleased with the outcome of 5A, which will provide long overdue raises for our educators,” the federation announced on Facebook.

Pay has also been stepped up for teachers in other districts in recent months and years. Yet, even with raises, teachers have been persistent in their calls for more financial support, especially amid the tight metro–area economy.

Possible Solutions

The level of state funding has prevented school districts from providing “greater support for public education and schools,” according to Colorado Association of School Board Executive Director, Jubal Yennie. “Total funding in public education and for average teacher salaries in Colorado have typically been in the lowest quartertile compared to other states,” he said.

Some school districts stepped up to raise teacher pay after inflation last year hit its highest level nationally in four decades. And, since then, the Denver metro area’s Consumer Price Index has risen by 4.7%. The index measures the average change over time in the prices urban consumers pay for typical goods.

Douglas County saw the smallest salary increase from the 2022-23 school year to this school year among metro districts, according to data collected from school districts’ public salary schedules. The pay for Douglas County’s entry-level teachers with a bachelor’s degree increased by $1,529, compared to Cherry Creek, which saw the highest salary increase.  

Salaries for Cherry Creek’s entry-level teachers increased by $14,580 from the beginning of last school year to this school year. 

Adams 12 Five Star Schools, which serves more than 36,000 students in schools in Federal Heights, Northglenn, Thornton, Westminster and Broomfield, raised starting-teacher salaries to $58,000 a year from the previous school year. That’s an increase of more than $12,000.

Lower salaries also can result in some teachers, like Fairchild, commuting dozens of miles every weekday to get to work. Despite having worked at Sage Canyon Elementary School in Castle Rock since 2009, which is in Douglas County, she can’t afford to live in that community. Instead, she lives in Aurora because that’s what she can afford. She also works extra jobs to make ends meet. 

“It is disheartening,” Fairchild said. 

Fairchild said the cost of housing exacerbates the issue because it isn’t affordable for many teachers she works alongside in Douglas County.

The median price for a home in Aurora was $495,000 in October. In Highlands Ranch, it was $747,000, according to Realtor.com. In Denver, median home sales prices were $600,000 and $625,000 in Arvada. Average apartment rental prices reflected similar trends in those communities.

“I live in Cherry Creek, so yeah, I don’t have another way to say it,” Fairchild said. “People who are coming and wanting to be teachers are not even considering Douglas County. For sure (pay rates compared to other districts) is a problem.”

That leaves some school districts that don’t have as much to pay looking for other ways to lure and retain instructors.  

Douglas County Schools Superintendent Erin Kane said the short-term retention efforts the district has made — such as offering discounted before-and-after-school care for staff, limiting health care costs, annual stipends and even free meals — helped keep the turnover rate from being even higher.

So far this school year, more than 26,000 free meals have been served to Douglas County staff members. Funds for tuition reimbursement for teachers’ professional development are already exhausted for the year. 

Kane said boasting benefits instead of offering competitive pay is not sustainable.

A man and a woman sitting next to one another, smiling.
Douglas County school board president Mike Peterson and Superintendent Erin Kane watch election results come in at Duke's Steakhouse in Castle Pines. Early results showed voters passing the $66 million mill levy override for teacher raises by 52%. Credit: Photo by McKenna Harford

“The district has made such tremendous short-term efforts to retain staff, but it’s really important for our public to understand that those short-term efforts are not long-term solutions, and it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a big problem,” Kane said. “All leading indicators, such as the job decline rate, are extremely troubling.”

State Sen. Janet Buckner, chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, acknowledged teachers’ struggle with making a living wage, among other concerns. She also said that she is a cheerleader for teachers in the state government. 

“My role on the Education Committee is to ensure that we can do everything we can. And I know it sounds mundane, but we need to do everything we can to elevate education in the state of Colorado,” Buckner said. “Public education is our foundation. And that’s why the public has to be supportive.”

Gov. Jared Polis announced this month that he wants to spend $564.1 million on the next budget year to strengthen schools. If approved by legislators, per-pupil funding would increase by an average of $705, or $15,500 for a classroom with 22 students. This would be on top of last year’s per-pupil funding of $1,019. 

The governor’s proposed budget will also provide $8 million to support STEM education and enrichment programs and $5 million for work-based learning. 

“We really believe that we will have enough money to improve teachers' salaries, conditions, etcetera,” Buckner said of the proposed budget. 

Education Associations

In Aurora Public Schools, district officials recently sounded the alarm for board members to pay close attention to teacher salary issues.

Months into the school year, the district has not finalized a contract with their teacher union. On Sept. 29, APS Superintendent Michael Giles sent a letter to staff about ongoing negotiations between the board and the Aurora Education Association. 

He wrote that he lacked the “confidence that a salary increase for licensed staff would come this calendar year.” He also wrote that he “is greatly concerned about our ability to attract new teachers with our current starting teacher salary while also retaining veteran teachers.”

The letter states that, on average, teachers received a 9% salary increase last year, but that the district paid for it with money from district reserves because of a “one-year lag in inflation adjustments'' and because the “district’s per pupil revenue only increased by 3.5%” in the 2022-23 school year. Giles also stated that the district also made more than “$6.5 million in administrative cuts first to keep school budgets untouched.”

During an Oct. 24 APS board meeting, two people spoke during open discussion about giving veteran teachers higher salaries. 

According to a Sept. 29 letter from APS Superintendent Michael Giles, the teacher union turned down the district’s proposal for salary raises, which would have given first-year teachers a $10,000 raise. The education association refuted the initial proposal because veteran teachers, who have at least six years of experience, would have received the lowest salary increase. Giles’ letter does not include when the district first gave this proposal to the education association. 

Giles’ letter stated that on Sept. 20, the district amended the proposal to increase the salary for veteran teachers from $923 to $2,600.

“However, in order to meet this increased compensation proposal, we would need to reduce school budgets by 1%-2%. Given differences in budgeting and staffing, the impact of the budget reduction would vary across the school district,” Giles wrote in his letter. 

Teacher raises have been the focus of teachers and administrators across the metro region.

Earlier this year, the Jefferson County Education Association, the union representing Jeffco Schools teachers, negotiated a 5.25% pay raise with the district.

“While the increase was a good start, if the district wants to remain competitive with other metro-area districts, more work needs to be done,” said Brooke Williams, JCEA president.

Like Douglas County teacher Lombard, Williams said education is a calling.

“But I still think it's really important for educators to receive a living wage so they can live in the areas where they teach,” she added. “First and foremost, teachers are the cornerstone of our educational system.”

She worries that because Jeffco teachers are paid less than several other metro districts, its schools have become a training ground where new teachers leave after a few years in search of better compensation. Burnout is also real and part of the problem, as Williams sees it, is linked to high turnover. For instance, Williams said she saw a special education teacher position go unfilled for a year. While the school split the caseload among the other teachers and compensated them more, she said it isn’t fair to expect that kind of situation to continue without teachers getting overloaded.

Ashlee Hoppe, a special education teacher at Summit Ridge Middle School, said she’s in her 11th year of teaching and still trying to make ends meet. She lives with a roommate and despite doing all she can to cut her expenses, she can’t afford to go on trips or to start working on her Master’s degree to move up on the district’s pay scale.

“I’m already making decisions on if I can afford to go to my doctor, or do I need to put food on the table? I've had to drastically cut back on what I can provide for students in the classroom because I can't afford it,” said Hoppe.

While many teachers are leaving for better-paying jobs in other school districts, or just leaving the industry altogether, there are still some determined to stay in their classrooms. 

Carmen Curtis Basham, a high school teacher at Aurora’s Rangeview High School, said she turned down offers from Cherry Creek because she already set roots in APS. She said that she’s “made peace” with her compensation.

a teacher wearing a red scarf poses for a photo in her classroom.
Carmen Curtis Basham, math teacher at Aurora’s Rangeview High School, said she’s committed to teaching where she is, even though she could get a higher salary by moving to a school district that pays more. / Kristin Oh, Sentinel Colorado

“A part of my core belief is service above self and I chose this job because I make a difference in this world. And yes, I have friends who also have math degrees who make more doing other things, but I don't think they're as satisfied,” she said. 

Now, she serves as a mentor to early career teachers and teachers new to the school district. 

Her regular advice for them is to not feel guilty about leaving a school district to work for a different one closer to home. She encouraged them to spend more time with family than commuting. 

This story is a collaboration between Sentinel Colorado, which covers Aurora and surrounding areas, and Colorado Community Media, which covers two dozen communities in the Denver area. Editor’s Note: The Douglas County School District teachers and administrators who participated in this article were interviewed in the evening, away from any DCSD properties. 

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