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A recruiter from Aurora Public Schools works a booth at a job fair at the University of Northern Colorado.

A recruiter from Aurora Public Schools works a booth at a job fair at the University of Northern Colorado.

Tales from inside Colorado’s teacher shortage: housing for horses and recruiters without interviews

The job fair was going well for Stephanie Polutchko and the phrase on her white name tag explained why: “high school science.”

Like other prospective Colorado teachers in high-demand areas, she was flush with options as she walked the long rows of school district booths advertising open interview slots and, in some cases, signing bonuses.

By lunchtime, one recruiter from a tiny school district on the sparsely populated Eastern Plains had dangled a tantalizing offer before Polutchko. She could run the entire secondary science department, have classes as small as eight students, and coach the high school rodeo team. Plus, they’d give her a place to board her horse.

Polutchko hadn’t planned to move outside the Front Range urban corridor, but now she was tempted.

“I was really in love with them,” she said later.

A sign at a job fair booth advertising signing bonuses for certain positions

A sign at a job fair booth advertising signing bonuses for certain positions

Polutchko’s experience illustrates the upside of Colorado’s teacher shortage for job-seekers in disciplines such as math, science, special education, or foreign language, as well as those willing to work in rural schools. But the workforce crisis leaves district officials anxious about unfilled vacancies, under-staffed schools, and sometimes, second-rate hires.

For Thomas Myers, director of secondary student support services for the suburban Adams 12 school district, an empty blue folding chair encapsulated all those worries at the job fair. It was meant for special education job candidates who wanted to interview with him.

But even though hundreds of candidates visited the fair inside a University of Northern Colorado sports arena that April day, almost no one sat in the chair. His interview sign-up sheet, which had room for about 20 candidates, had a single name on it.

“Four years ago, five years ago, I was full for two days,” Myers said. “It’s just been a steady decline.”

Adams 12 needs to fill 30 to 40 special education jobs for next school year. It’s a tall order considering the positions require special credentials, and come with copious paperwork and higher litigation risks, Myers said.

As colleagues beside him at the job fair table interviewed general education job-seekers, Myers waited. For the right special education candidate, he said, he’d sweeten the deal by offering a signing bonus of $1,200 to $1,500. It wasn’t much compared to the $10,000 bonuses he’d seen offered by some out-of-state districts, but his bigger problem was the empty chair.

A state strategic plan released in December contains lots of ideas that could help Myers and district leaders like him recruit and retain educators in shortage areas — everything from loan forgiveness programs to extra compensation for teachers in hard-to-staff schools. The state budget includes $10 million to address teacher shortages, particularly in rural areas, but legislators have shied away from more expensive fixes.

For the moment, school districts will have to muddle along, or as Deer Trail Superintendent Kevin Schott put it, “be a little creative.”

Schott, who manned the job fair booth for his 200-student district east of Denver, planned to offer a $3,000 signing bonus to fill a science opening — one of three available jobs.

The district’s starting salary for new teachers with a bachelor’s degree is just under $34,000.

Like leaders in other rural districts, Schott sometimes offers discounted housing to prospective employees. Currently, Deer Trail has five apartment units, but soon there will be more.

“We have a basement we’re going to finish off this summer,” he said.

For young job-seekers like Chelsea Linton, who will graduate from the University of Northern Colorado next month, the field remains competitive. That’s because she’s getting her degree in elementary education — not an acute shortage area in most districts.

“Do you see how many of us are here today?” she said, glancing around at all the candidates milling past more than 150 school district booths. “It’s kind of crazy.”

Linton, who hopes to stay on in the Morgan County district in northern Colorado where she’s finishing her student teaching, said she’d earn $32,000 if she lands a spot there. Despite about $10,000 in students loans to pay off, she said salary isn’t the deciding factor.

“To me, you don’t go into teaching for the money,” she said.

While other candidates at the job fair expressed similar sentiments, low compensation is a nagging issue for both Colorado teachers and the districts that compete to employ them. A recent study ranked Colorado last among states for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Even sought-after candidates like Polutchko, who was heavily recruited by the rural district with the rodeo team, can’t count on making much money. Though she will earn her master’s degree in evolutionary biology this spring, her salary in the rural district would likely be half of what she’d make in the affluent Boulder Valley district. That’s where she student teaches now and has lived for the last six years.

Still, Boulder is pricey and the uniqueness of a small, rural community is enticing, she said.

The rural district’s recruiter told Polutchko that with hunting common there, it’s likely a student would bring in an elk heart for dissection. Or maybe a local farmer would send in a stillborn calf for the class to examine. The possibilities thrilled her.

“I was like, ‘Yes!’” Polutchko said.