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Budget shortfalls call for creative management at RE-2

by Bill Knowles

LA VETA — With continuing budget shortfalls boxing in local schools and preventing new teachers from being hired while the more experienced teachers leave to find increased paychecks elsewhere, local schools are faced with either cutting more academic and athletic programs or finding creative ways to deliver local public education.

RE-2 has taken up the latter idea in its efforts to maintain the quality of education La Veta students have been receiving. The World Journal sat down with Superintendent Bree Lessar at the end of the 2015-2016 school year and talked about the efforts RE-2 is making in the area of creative management.

Right now there is a lot of talk about mill levy overrides and increases, but according to Lessar, that’s just not something she thinks is going to pass. She thinks the political climate just isn’t right, locally, statewide, or nationally, for tax increases to be acceptable to voters.

“Right now we are looking at what we can do within what we can do,” Lessar said. There are funds generated by the taxes on marijuana, but those funds don’t cover teachers. They cover infrastructure repairs and new building for the schools. Yet, it is teachers that make a school a school.

One of the options RE-2 is looking at is “transitioning teachers” out from retirement. This allows the school to take advantage of their expertise as long as rules and regulations are followed concerning the number of hours volunteers can work. “We adhere to the rules, but if one is creative we can take advantage of that,” Lessar said. “We can still pay them, but the benefit package we normally offer teachers is different. It can all be negotiated.” One advantage is the mentoring provided by the retired teachers to the younger teachers.

But the question arises: When a fantastic staff is assembled, how are they retained?

About a third of RE-2’s staff is nearing retirement, and their expertise will be needed in the effort to provide quality education. This is where the transitioning of teachers comes in. The rules allow a newly retired teacher to serve 110 days in the first school year following retirement. The second year is burdened with restrictions. This allows the administration to find the best teacher, even if they have to search for a candidate during the first year of retirement of the experienced teacher.

Funding is down to about $2 million dollars over the past six years. Any extra funding is spent on staff, maintenance, and infrastructure. Since 2008, RE-2 has been deferring maintenance and investing in staff.

The district has even considered combining classes, ie. having first graders and second graders in the same room staffed with a teacher and an aide, but the idea has been discarded because it is felt it isn’t the best strategy for student achievement, which is the school’s number one priority.

“We try to get what the teachers need and get out of their way,” Lessar notes. “My facilities manager is a licensed electrician, licensed for HVAC; there’s not much he can’t do. To have that level of expertise, in the district, and to not have to look outside for these things, it’s phenomenal we have that internally. So we are always looking at how to add value.”

How is value added in an environment where people are expecting to see a traditional school setup? “They are wanting to see a superintendent, a principal, and counselors. And that’s not necessarily what we’ve done,” said Lessar. “We’ve looked at the capacities we have, how to divide the jobs that need to be done among the people who have the expertise to do it, and deliver the product the community wants to see.” Doing it this way has generated some criticism from the community, along with chain of command concerns because of this outside-the-box thinking, but none of the concerns have made it to the board level.

However, given budgets and personnel issues, many schools throughout the state, especially the rural schools, need to think differently. For schools with 300 or more students, the traditional view works. But in schools of less than 300, (La Veta has about 220) the traditional understanding of schools begins to fade as funding drops and each staff member has to wear several different hats to make the system work.