Teachers' pay on slippery slopes

Vail tries to help keep good teachers

VAIL, Colorado (AP) -- Casey Doherty, a third-grade teacher, sometimes finds herself serving burritos to her students and their families while she works as a night-shift waitress at a Mexican restaurant.

Depending on the time of year, high school art teacher Berneil Bannon works up to four other jobs, including walking dogs, to pay the rent.

"In the beginning of my teaching career, I had to deliver pizzas," said Tom Treat, who has taught in this ski resort for 23 years. "I also would kid-sit for parents who were leaving town for a week or two."

For years, the high cost of living has forced many Vail-area teachers to live like ski bums. But now the community is trying to do something about it.

Voters in Eagle County, home to Vail, are being asked November 6 to raise property taxes to boost teachers' salaries. Similar proposals are on ballot in the counties where the ski resorts of Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs and Winter Park are situated.

If voters approve the additional taxes, the Eagle County district's 378 teachers will get a cost-of-living increase averaging about $4,600. The current starting salary is $30,000.

"We don't want my daughter's teacher to be delivering pizza to our door," said Karen Strakbein, finance director for the Eagle County School District.

A teacher shortage that has affected districts nationwide has been compounded in resort towns like Vail by a high cost of living.

The average price for a condo in Vail is $518,000. A single-family home averages $1.04 million. Only 20 percent of the town's employees live within the city limits.

"We have a 'three or three' rule here: You either have three roommates or three jobs," Strakbein said.

The ballot measures were made possible by a new state law that a Vail citizens group helped pushed through.

Joy Overbeck, a Vail-area resident, argues that it would be better to give teachers merit raises.
"The district is relentlessly average. We don't want to reward all the teachers without pinpointing the ones who should be rewarded," she said. "We first have to identify who the quality teachers are."

To try to stem the brain drain, Vail is building affordable housing and selling condos and single-family homes at a fraction of the market value to longtime residents, police and firefighters.

Eagle County district officials last year offered a $1,000 bonus to teachers who agreed to stay another year, but 10 percent didn't return. With additional teachers hired because of the area's growing population and 27 teachers on sabbaticals, 24 percent of this year's staff is new.

"Those of us who are left behind have to mentor new teachers. It is disheartening," said Bannon, who teaches at Battle Mountain High School just west of Vail.

Aspen, another resort with high housing prices, has yet to ask voters to raise teacher pay. But businessman Dick Butera stepped in to help by donating $100,000 a year to pay 10 outstanding teachers, selected by students and other teachers, a $10,000 bonus.

"I hope it raises the consciousness of the community. I don't know how anybody could be more important than somebody who spends eight hours a day with our children," Butera said.

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