Thousands of Colorado teachers rallied at the capitol last week, protesting what they see as inadequate school funding. Several districts canceled class for the day because they couldn’t find enough substitutes. The Roaring Fork School District remained open, but some of its teachers went to Denver.
Last Thursday, a group who stayed behind took to the streets, or the sidewalks, at least, to drum up public support.
It was a sunny afternoon and 100 or so teachers from the Roaring Fork School District waved signs before the traffic that crawled through Glenwood Springs.
Shaina Maytum, an English teacher at Glenwood Springs High School, brought a sign that read: “If the Broncos were in 45th place, people would care.”
Colorado actually ranks 32nd in the nation when it comes to average teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association. The state spends nearly $2,700 less per student than the national average; 95 percent of rural educators are paid below the cost of living and lots of teachers feel they need extra jobs. Autumn Rivera, a science teacher at Glenwood Springs Middle School, for instance, said she has five or six jobs just so she can afford to live in the Roaring Fork Valley.
This kind of hustle, Rivera said, can wear people down. The year she started teaching, she was among 13 new teachers on staff.
“Since then, in six years, there are four of us left,” she said.
Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Rob Stein said he’s heard of staff members who are selling their cars in order to keep working for the district. The staffing shortages and turnover, he said, is starting to reach a crisis level.
“We’re reaching the point where we have positions that we don’t know if we can fill,” Stein said.
Of course, the district does have the option of asking its voters for money. They have in the past, but Stein said even if the voters said yes, it still won’t be enough.
That’s why each school from the district sent four representatives to Denver to advocate for better retirement benefits, higher salaries and more money spent on students, all before the legislative session ends on May 9.
Colorado is one of many states where teachers are making these kinds of demands. In places like West Virginia, teachers have gone on strike for days at a time to pressure lawmakers.
Some teachers with the Roaring Fork School District would consider striking, but it most likely wouldn’t make much of a difference, according to Karrie Dallman, the president of the Colorado Education Association (CEA), which is the teachers union, organizing the rallies in Denver.
“We will not have a strike,” Dallman said.
Dallman explained that teachers in many of the state’s districts signed contracts that explicitly say they’re not allowed to strike. Teachers’ leverage, then, comes from engaging union members and the communities around them and getting lots of pressure on elected officials. What’s more, she said, it’s working.
“It is clear that our advocacy efforts are making a difference,” Dallman said.
The legislation is still shaking out in the halls of the Capitol, and the House approved a bill regarding the public pension program, which had the support of the CEA. It’s still too early to tell yet just how much of a difference the advocacy efforts are making.
The night before the rally in Glenwood Springs, the school board met and dozens of teachers attended, as well. They watched and applauded as the board signed a resolution, supporting the activism in Denver.
At one point, the board broke up into small groups with the teachers to brainstorm ways for the district and teachers to work together to find ways the board can support the teachers. Energizing the community and getting people to call their legislators could be more collaborative than a strike. At the very least, those in the small groups acknowledged it'll keep schools open, and the kids learning.
Whether or not it changes anything permanently, it’s too early to say.