STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Parents of students in the Hayden School District aired concerns at Monday night’s school board meeting, claiming the number of teacher resignations in recent months is being fueled by a work environment where teachers are afraid to speak out about issues to district leadership.
During the virtual meeting, five parents, each part of a parent group called the Parent-School Initiative, criticized the board for what they say is an abnormally high turnover rate among teachers and the board’s lack of oversight on the issue.
“With the alarmingly high rate of district employee turnover, I demand the board look at where it is failing our students and the community,” parent Ashley Sweetser said.
>This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. 9NEWS joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public.
As is customary in public meetings of government bodies across Colorado, the board generally did not address the parents’ statements when they were made, instead saying they would keep parent comments in mind in their decision-making.
“Later in the meeting probably, likely after the debriefing or at another time, we’ll have a conversation about how the list of concerns can be addressed and who necessary needs to follow up,” Board President Brian Hoza said at the meeting in response to questions in the virtual meeting’s chat function.
But the board did not return to the topic during the public portion of the meeting, even though the board approved the resignations of four staff, including Hayden Secondary School Principal Archie Shipp. At 8:05 p.m., the board went into an executive session “for the purpose of discussions regarding personnel matters,” Hoza said.
Colorado open meetings laws require public bodies to identify “the particular matter to be discussed in as much detail as possible without compromising the purpose for which the executive session is authorize.”
After the meeting, Hoza said in an email the executive session was “to process and understand some specific correspondence that was shared directly with the board,” and discussions during the session did not stray from the stated purpose.
In response to parent comments, Hoza encouraged a review of historic trends of teacher transition, which he said would balance the “skewed impressions that were shared.”
The number of staff leaving the district isn’t entirely clear. In an interview with Steamboat Pilot & Today last week, Hayden Superintendent Christy Sinner said there are three teachers retiring, and there are others who are not returning. Sinner said the district is working to fill these open positions and has already made several hires.
“There is a variety of different reasons. Some just want a break, some are doing another position, some are moving to the Front Range,” Sinner said, declining to give more detail because the resignations are a personnel matter.
Parents who spoke Monday said they are aware of at least 10 teachers leaving. Six letters of resignation of staff have been submitted as part of board materials at meetings in 2021.
The letters include the resignation of Shipp. In an email to Sinner, Shipp said he will finish out his contract with the district.
“While the experience here at Hayden has been exemplary in many ways, it has also been one of the most difficult experiences of my life to attempt to guide a school and community through COVID and all that has brought with it,” Shipp wrote. “Especially, while being away from my own family in the process.”
The resignation letters do not mention any problems staff had with the district, with several of them saying they enjoyed their time and will miss the school. On Monday, Pilot & Today filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with the district seeking documents about all staff resignations in the past year, and the district anticipates providing those records by Wednesday.
On average, the teacher turnover rate is about 16% across the country, according to a 2017 study from the Learning Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on pre-kindergarten through high school education.
Half of that is through attrition, or teachers who leave the profession, and the other half is due to teachers shifting schools, the study says. Colorado has a slightly below average turnover rate among teachers of about 15%.
“With 36 educators in our district, and 10 of those educators not returning next year, our district is sitting at a whopping two times the average annual turnover rate,” Sweetser said. “This displays the incredibly unsafe and uncollaborative environment found at Hayden schools and is a direct reflection of the job the school board is not doing for our children and our community.”
“There are some assumptions involved in there, but we will review that,” Hoza said, when Sweetser finished speaking.
Sweetser is part of the Parent-School Initiative, a parent group started in March of last year. The parents said district teachers are confidentially telling them they feel they could be retaliated against if they speak out publicly.
“I have heard multiple times, from multiple teachers of all grade levels — teachers who are staying and teachers who have decided to leave — that they don’t feel they can speak openly about their concerns,” said parent Alicia Doolin, referring to personal conversations she has had with school staff. “They feel like their concerns are seen as whiny and self-serving, and they even fear of retaliation from the administration.”
Doolin, who said she has not spoken with all teachers in the district, said she encouraged one teacher who is leaving to speak up, but they refused out of fear the district would contact their new employer. Doolin said another teacher, who Doolin did not name, said an anonymous survey of staff was censored by leadership to remove comments critical of the district, and issues raised in the survey were never addressed.
One of the parents who spoke Monday worked for the school previously.
“I can say, as someone who worked for the school district, it was not a pleasant experience,” said Jacci Walton, who said she worked in the district for 2 1/2 years starting in 2017 as a substitute and special education teacher before shifting to a role as librarian and computer technology teacher. “The teachers were not given the tools that they needed. They were forced to wear so many hats, without being asked or educated or given training.”
Part of the reason Walton ultimately left her job was because her son, who requires additional needs, was sent out of classrooms to her classroom, Walton said in an interview after the meeting.
“I was trying to teach classes, and my son was being sent out of other classes from other teachers to my classroom for me to deal with the behaviors and the issues,” Walton said. “At that point, I was acting as my own son’s para and not able to do my job.”
Walton said she and other parents do not hold any specific school board member or administrator responsible for teacher turnover and school culture, instead she said they are collectively culpable for not addressing the issues she sees at the school.
Another parent, Heidi Mendisco, requested the board set aside time at the next board meeting specifically to discuss the issue.
“We are astutely aware of our challenges regarding teacher shortages, as well as hiring and retaining teachers; particularly in this current extraordinary year of the pandemic — hence our directed goal to improve this objective,” Hoza said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Local stories from 9NEWS