By Caitlin Switzer
MONTROSE–After a long summer of working with parents, staff and teachers to establish new leadership teams in five other local schools, the unexpected departure of Johnson Elementary Principal Lisa Pierce in late July came as a tough blow to the community and to RE-1J Superintendent Mark MacHale.
“Being a principal is an incredibly stressful job,” MacHale said, “It was tough to lose Lisa. But we have good plans in place at all of our schools, and each our six new leaders brings their own personality and skills to the game.”
Stepping in as Principal at Johnson is Cheryl Gomez, who previously served as Superintendent of the Ridgway schools. No pool of applicants was available on such short notice, MacHale said, and Gomez has shown a willingness to learn and welcomes the help and support of Johnson students, parents and staff.
“She has not had much time to adjust, but I think she is doing a good job,” he said. “We hope that kids, parents and staff will be patient; we are fortunate to have someone on board, and she is in all the way.”
In addition to Johnson Elementary, new leaders are in place at Pomona, Cottonwood and Northside elementaries as well as at Centennial Middle School and in the Early Childhood Education program.
MacHale said he and his management team have carefully analyzed staff reasons for leaving (though some administrators, like Joe Simo who returned to Centennial after several years at Pomona, merely changed schools), and acknowledged that starting the year with so many new leaders can mean “two steps forward, and one step back.” It can be difficult for a small, rural school district to attract teachers when other regions can offer higher salaries, he said.
“$32,000 is our starting base pay for teachers,” he said. “It’s not very high.” He noted that the “unfreezing” of the service credit for continuing education in 2012 was the first increase to the base in at least four or five years.
Even if a planned mill levy override with a property tax increase designed to infuse $2,913,000 into local schools for five years is approved by voters in November, it won’t boost teacher salaries, MacHale said.
“Our teachers want to be successful, and we want them to succeed,” he said. “If the override succeeds, we will look at our purchases, particularly in the area of technology, and analyze immediate needs. We would be able to use the money as early as next spring; it would be part of this year’s budget.”
Staff input will be essential moving forward, he said.
“We will bring everyone to the table and begin making plans,” he said. “I know that one of the things our teachers want most is more planning time. $2.9 million sounds like a lot of money, and it will make a positive impact, but there will still be needs left-we are still in a triage mentality.”
Enrollment in local schools is currently stagnant, with a slight increase in the 2013-2014 October count (6,200), which had been dropping steadily since 2009-2010, when it reached a high of 6,522. The school district’s annual budget hovers between $40 and $42 million, MacHale said.
Despite the challenges, Re-1J has already moved forward with several longtime goals this year. For the first time ever all-day kindergarten is available in every district elementary school at no charge, and early childhood education programs are being expanded.
“Our goal is to get preschools into every school,” MacHale said, noting that Johnson Elementary already has morning and afternoon preschool classes, and that Olathe Elementary will have them shortly as well.
Though in the past ECE programs in Montrose Re-1J schools have been available only to families at risk, the changes will make the valuable program available to middle class families in the district as well.
Issue 3A: Mill levy override ballot language
Shall Montrose County public school district Re1-J taxes be increased by $2.913 million annually in the 2014-15 budget year, and continue at that amount annually thereafter through tax collection year 2019, after which a vote of the public would again be needed to authorize such increase, for educational purposes to be approved by the board of education which shall include and be limited to:
. Hiring additional highly-qualified teachers
. Instructional and curriculum materials
. Technology designed to be used in the classroom
. Professional development and training for educators
. Needed maintenance and improvement of classroom and school facilities
By an additional property tax levy at a rate sufficient to produce the amounts specified above; and shall such taxes be deposited into the general fund of the district in addition to any property taxes that otherwise could be levied for the general fund; and shall the taxes so deposited be tracked separately in the district’s accounting system to ensure that such taxes are used only for the purposes stated above, including such taxes that are not spent in the year collected; and shall such taxes be independent of any other tax levy whether or not approved by voters; and shall the district be authorized to collect, retain and spend all revenues from such taxes and the earnings from the investment of such revenues, as voter approved revenue change and an exception to the limitations that would otherwise apply under Article X, Section 20 of the Colorado Constitution or any other law?