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North Fork residents share ideas with school district

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Photo by Tamie Meck Shawn LaBounty shares his thoughts with Delta County School District administrator Caryn Gibson and facilitator Randy Black (standing), with the Colorado Association of School Boards at a Feb. 9 district information-gathering meeting a

Delta County School District representatives heard a wide range of thoughts and ideas regarding the challenges the district faces during last week's information-gathering meetings held at the four district high schools. A few common themes emerged from the Hotchkiss and Paonia meetings, mainly focusing on retention of quality staff, declining enrollment, fiscal concerns, consolidation of schools, and above all, what is best for the students.

The meetings were intended to encourage open dialog about the district, and to help guide the school board through the upcoming budget process and in the years ahead, said board vice president Tammy Smith, who grew up in the North Fork area. The district held similar meetings last year and was pleased with the feedback. "We just want to hear what parents and staff have to say," said Smith. "Everybody's got a different perspective."

The district aims to give kids the tools to succeed, said Superintendent Caryn Gibson in giving an overview of the district in order to start the conversation. "Our end goal is graduates with options."

Randy Black, Director of Member Relations for the Colorado Association of School Boards, facilitated the meetings. He asked participants to break into small focus groups and come up with the No.1 issues the board should consider and "strengths that need to be protected" in the coming years.

Among more pressing concerns that emerged from both North Fork meetings were quality teacher retention, declining enrollment, overall declining funding, how to best utilize existing resources, how to leverage more grants, a lag in technology, and how to maintain aging buildings, infrastructure and transportation.

At Paonia, where just over half of the roughly 22 participants work for the district, school consolidation emerged as a primary topic. Participants expressed concern over consolidation, one calling it "the big elephant in the room," and another saying "it would take the life blood out of whichever community lost their school."

Others said that while it would be difficult and painful to many, it's an obvious solution to the district's funding and enrollment problems.

With a continuing decline in enrollment -- the district went from 5,063 in 2012 to 4847 students in 2016 -- and with classrooms sitting empty in both high schools, participants agreed it's a topic that needs addressing.

"It's a complicated issue," said parent Shawn LaBounty of Paonia. The amount of community meetings it would take to accomplish the feat alone would be demanding on both communities.

It's a topic of discussion in many rural districts, which make up roughly 80 percent of the state's districts, said Black, who urged participants to form a committee and further the discussion.

At both meetings, quality teachers, who average nine years of experience within the district, was identified as one of the district's greatest asset, and retaining them among its greatest challenges. At $37,019, the average annual teacher salaries rank 97th out of 178 districts in the state, and are lower than in Ouray, Norwood, Cortez, Montrose, Mesa County and Gunnison.

At Hotchkiss, where district staff outnumbered parents by about four-to-one, retaining quality staff and how to increase salaries floated to the top of the discussion. The district was urged to include classified employees, which make up about half of the HHS staff, in the salary discussion. Classifieds include administrative, teacher's aides, custodians, food service, secretaries, and transportation. If the administration were to miss work, the schools would go on, said business teacher Matt Hall. But if the secretary out, as happened two weeks ago at HHS, "We go into survival mode."

K-8 School principal Carrie Yantzer said she chose to educate her kids in Hotchkiss over a bigger paycheck in a different district, "because it was the best place to educate. I could go somewhere else and make more money, but I chose to be here because of the relationships and the quality of education that they receive."

While incentives like intermittent week-long breaks (one of which is this week), and the quality of life the area provides, help entice teachers to join or remain in the district, participants agree the district needs to do more.

At both meetings participants agreed that the No. 1 concern is the welfare and education of students. "It's pure and simple: We're all here about the kids," said a Paonia father of a middle school student.

The district has a current graduation rate of 90.4 percent, and the dropout rate is 1.9 percent, slightly below state average, with alternative opportunities making up the difference. Challenges identified include helping students choose career paths, keeping students engaged in their education, and concern that "college-level" classes currently offered may not truly be college-level.

"We have challenges that a lot of school districts do not," said Gibson at Paonia. "But I believe that's what makes Delta County special and a great place to learn and grow."

Bob Bushta, a science and technology teacher at Paonia Elementary School, said his focus group identified retention of quality staff as a top concern. The need for more community and parent support was also a main issue. But what his group agreed on was that kids come first. " Whatever we choose, it's got to be something that directly affects the kids."

Gibson reiterated that the district has an open-door policy. For those unable to make the meetings and wanting their thoughts on record, an eight-point outreach community survey can be accessed at www.deltaschools.com.

Other areas of concern for the district to consider include:

Student-to-teacher ratios

Increasing work loads on teachers and staff

Dissatisfaction with schools, and in particular the middle schools

Too much focus on sports

Aging transportation (the newest buses are 2004 models)

Reducing operating/maintenance costs on the district's 24 buildings

How to best utilize existing resources

Unfair resource distribution from school to school

How to obtain more grant funding

The state's lack of support and funding for mandates in education

Maintaining better communication with the public at large

The need for greater public/parent participation in education and activities

Families leaving the area for other educational options and how to identify and retain them

Preparing students for college, the work force and the military

How to fund capital expenses

Setting long-term goals and priorities

Continuing and improving teacher professional development

Keeping up with changing technology

Photo by Tamie Meck Post-it notes reveal the thoughts of parents, teachers and staff as a group of Delta County School District employees and parents share ideas for the district to consider the biggest challenges the district faces during an information-gathering meeting last Thursday at Hotchkiss High School.
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