The daily challenges facing rural Colorado may seem far removed from the easy access enjoyed by the Front Range. And that’s the point: Even in 2018, many Coloradans on the eastern plains, Western Slope, southern borders and mountain towns remain far removed from the services they need to thrive.
During the Emerging Issues portion of its meeting Nov. 9 at UCCS, the CU Board of Regents spoke with a panel of rural leaders about big challenges faced by their small communities.
Hosted by Amy Humble from the Office of the Board of Regents, the panel comprised Christian Reece, executive director of Club 20 on the Western Slope; Konnie Martin, CEO of San Luis Health/San Luis Valley; and Myles Johnson, superintendent of the Idalia School District.
The scarcity or inconsistency of broadband is a critical issue in rural areas, panelists said. Lack of internet access reaches far beyond a need for Netflix. It could mean the difference between building a workforce that can work remotely, getting brain scans into the right hands for evaluation or enabling students to take state-required standardized tests.
“We still have some communities that use dial-up, think about that – it’s 2018,” Reece said. “When you talk about these small communities being economically competitive with the Front Range on dial-up? It’s not possible.”
There’s a high cost to build out high-speed internet to some of the smaller communities and the return on investment isn’t substantial, she said. The west slope is looking for help through state and federal dollars and old technology that’s becoming new again, such as microwave technology.
“It is being deployed in some of the hard-to-reach communities because it’s cost-effective and can reach down into canyons and hard-geographically-to-deploy areas,” Reece said.
Board Vice Chair Jack Kroll, D-Denver, said the lack of access to education affects the university’s mission to serve all Coloradans.
“We passed a 9-0 resolution to expand our digital educational offerings and if you all don’t have access to it because you don’t have broadband and internet, that’s a problem,” Kroll said. “It’s vitally important that we offer a CU education no matter where a student lives.”
Martin said in health care, broadband can mean life or death. “In our community, we depend on our internet connection to be able to have our radiology images read 24/7.”
She said last year’s spring fire knocked out some reception towers and the remaining towers became overwhelmed. “We went for about 30 hours at our hospital without internet connection – and we have the highest internet connection in the entire community as a priority provider.”
Todd Saliman, vice president and CFO, said the Legislature has been working to resolve the issue and provide reliable internet access across the state. “This was a huge priority at the Capitol, and especially for the rural legislators,” he said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper earlier this year signed legislation that calls for $100 million in allocations over the next five years to deliver high-speed internet to underserved rural areas around the state. That’s still a fraction of the estimated $300 million to $400 million it would take to extend broadband service to the entire state.
In addition to internet access, some better-known challenges are hindering smaller communities, such as nursing, doctor, physical therapist and teacher shortages, the panel said.
A severe teacher shortage has hampered Johnson’s school district.
“We’re having a really, really hard time getting applicants, sometimes begging just for one or two applicants to fill a position,” he said. Increased pay and letting employees work fewer days could be part of the solution, he said. Some districts in the eastern plains and elsewhere in Colorado have gone to four-day weeks. “My district board does not support that. We’re still on the five-day week and neighboring districts are on the four-day week, compounding the problem.”
Chancellors Don Elliman, CU Anschutz, and Dorothy Horrell, CU Denver, highlighted programs on each campus that aim to fill teaching and health-care gaps in rural communities. CU Boulder’s engineering programs through Mesa State University and Western State University also are reaching remote areas and educating rural populations, Reece pointed out. Venkat Reddy, UCCS chancellor, said the Cisco TelePresence courses have for years been assisting nursing and engineering programs in southern Colorado.
Regent Glen Gallegos, R-Grand Junction, stressed the importance of partnerships across the state and said the enhanced CU For Colorado site – which features 800 outreach programs across the state – that will launch in February will be a boon to rural populations seeking CU programs and services.
Gallegos said part of the answer to the shortages lies in individuals who are willing to go back to their communities and serve. “But the only way they’re going back home is if there’s jobs and an economy.”