Legislation signed by Gov. Jared Polis last week is designed to attract educators to the state's rural schools.

The measure, sponsored in part by Sen. Larry Crowder and Rep. Bri Buentello, expands a current program that awarded up to 40 stipends - known as the Colorado Rural Teaching Stipends, designed to offset tuition costs - of $2,800 to students enrolled in teacher preparation programs who agree to work in a rural school or school district for two years after receipt of the funds.

Senate Bill 9 removes the cap on the number of stipends available, and it increases the amount of stipends to $4,000.

It also removes a cap on the number of stipends available to teachers in rural areas seeking certification as a national board certified teacher, as a concurrent enrollment teacher, or completing an alternative licensure program that leads to employment in a rural area.

The amount of those stipends - $6,000 - did not increase.

What also did not increase is the funding available for the rural district stipend program, which is administered by the Center for Rural Education at the University of Northern Colorado.

So while removing the limits on the number of stipends that can be awarded may attract more candidates for rural school positions, the pool of money that is available for those stipends remains the same.

In its fiscal notes, the Legislative Council Staff stated, "To the extent that the number of applications increases, the Center for Rural Education may adjust the specific amount of each stipend and the number of stipends awarded.

"The bill does not require new funding; it is up to the General Assembly to decide whether to provide additional funding for the stipends."

"What's kind of nice about that is that when we have teachers who are doing student teaching, then they get paid during that time," said Las Animas School District Superintendent Elsie Goines. "In the past, you were teaching free of charge, so to say."

The challenge, Goines said, is for those teachers who are seeking licensure through online universities, which may not qualify for the Colorado program.

"Not everyone that might be student teaching in Colorado might benefit from it," she said. "Online programs sometimes are not eligible."

"Anytime legislation is passed, until the funding parts of that are figured out we usually are pretty slow to get too excited until we know what the annual impact will be," said Alfie Lotrich, superintendent of Fowler School District R4J.

"We have issues trying to recruit people," said East Otero R-1 Superintendent Rick Lovato. "(This legislation) can't hurt. I'm in support of it if it's going to give us an opportunity to land a few more teachers."

Lovato said the La Junta school district has a lot of different programs in place for teachers, including a program through the University of Colorado Denver that helps holders of bachelor's degrees obtain teaching certification.

And the Teacher Prep program at Otero Junior College allows a student to get the entire bachelor's teachers program, through a partnership with UCD.

"That's been in existence for a couple of years, and it's really helped," said Lovato.

School districts are determined to be rural based on the size of the district, the distance from the nearest large urban/urbanized area and having a student enrollment of approximately 6,500 students or fewer.

Small rural districts are those districts having a student population of fewer than 1,000 students.

The La Junta and Las Animas school districts fall into the rural district definition. The Fowler, Manzanola, Rocky Ford, Cheraw, Crowley County, Swink and McClave districts are defined as small rural districts.

jfairman@chieftain.com