'Fund our schools!' Colorado teachers kick off first of two days of rallies for better funding, pay

Thousands more expected at Friday rally

DENVER – An estimated 2,000 Colorado teachers converged on the state Capitol Thursday morning for the first of two days of rallies for better funding, pay and pension that are expected to draw more than 10,000 educators from across the state.

The teachers wore red as part of the #RedforEd campaign that has swept across states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona – where teachers also were holding rallies Thursday and Friday. Organizers estimated around 2,000 people showed up to the rally.

GALLERY: Colorado teachers walk off the job, rally at Capitol for better pay, school funding

Thursday’s rally started at 9 a.m. with chants of “Fund our schools!” as teachers converged on the Capitol and met with state lawmakers to discuss bills still being hashed out that will make changes to the state’s pension program and what most teachers said is an underfunded K-12 education system in Colorado.

Colorado Department of Education data shows the average teacher salary in Colorado for the 2017-18 school year was $52,728.

And the state teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, is asking for a series of changes to the pension program (PERA) and the funding formula.

Among those requests, according to the CEA, are that the state make down payments of at least $150 million this year on the so-called “negative factor” and to pay it off by 2022.

The union is also calling for the reduction or freezing of corporate tax breaks until lawmakers restore school funding, and are pushing a ballot initiative to raise taxes on some Coloradans. Proponents say if the initiative is passed, it would raise more than $1 billion each year for public education.

Supporters of the measure, Initiative 93, said they gathered about 2,500 signatures for the measure at Thursday's rally.

Republican lawmakers hosted a discussion about their proposals for teachers Thursday morning, and touted the billions put into the education portion of the state budget passed earlier this month. Both parties agree that schools are getting more money this year than any year since the Great Recession.

Republicans argued that education was funded at the “maximum amount” available in the state, and said it was up to local communities to understand how money makes it into their schools.

“Just this past year alone, we are looking at almost $500 million more going toward our students, going to our classrooms, going to our schools,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-El Paso County.

Democrats in the General Assembly have been pushing for some of the things asked by the teachers’ union, and there has been a focus on possible changes to TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment – which both affect the state’s school funding formula.

“Most people don’t understand these constitutional divisions that tie our hands as legislators,” said Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood. “We need to be able to do something. We need to be working at the legislative level; we need to be talking at the courts and we need to be talking to the governor’s office and the AG’s office.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cary Kennedy, whom the CEA has endorsed, spoke to the teachers before they headed inside the Capitol.

Colorado’s second and third-largest school districts, Jeffco Public Schools and the Douglas County School District, both canceled classes Thursday on the expectation that many of their teachers would attend the rally.

Hundreds of them did so, as well as other teachers from districts that either canceled class Thursday or had planned non-student-contact days.

Colleen Thompson, a Douglas County teacher who has spent 28 years in the classroom, talked about the struggles of making ends meet on a Colorado teacher’s salary.

“We spend our weekends buying things on the internet, sharing things,” she said. “I’ve waited tables for a year and I taught swim lessons. I’ve baby-sat people’s kids I tutored.”

“My cost of living in my apartment went up $145 this year. I put in 13 hour days,” said Brad Hull, a P.E. teacher at Everitt Middle School in Wheat Ridge. “I just don’t think it’s right – a single teacher such as myself is barely making it when I’m making so many impacts on kids’ lives every single day.”

Some brushed aside comments from opponents of the teacher rallies about the perceived amount of time off they receive and their salaries.

“You wouldn’t [do it for the money]. Nobody would. And it’s not for the summers off and it’s not for the time off, because we don’t get the time off either,” one teacher said.

A large group of Jeffco teachers spoke with lawmakers inside the Capitol and spoke of some of their struggles as well.

One taught children from kindergarten to third grade who have autism, and said the district has had to continually apply for grants to get learning tools into her classroom.

“I work two jobs and so do most other teachers,” she said. “And I’m OK with that because this is what I do and this is who I am. But it’s not just about teacher pay. Give us the materials we need to do our jobs the way we’ve been trained. That’s all we want.”

“I didn’t do it just to have the day off,” said kindergarten teacher Lisa Buescher. “Being here in person – what message does it send as opposed to a phone or an email? That we mean it. We mean business this time. We are really serious about what we need for education.”

Those sentiments were shared by first-grade teacher Suzanne Ogborn.

“I believe all of us together shows we’re on the same page – there’s unity with teachers,” Ogborn said. “We would rather be with our students today, but the long-term impact of making changes to funding will help our students in the long run.”

Several teachers said Thursday’s rally was the first time they had taken part in such a thing.

“I think it’s really exciting that we’re calling to light a lot of this,” said one teacher of 15 years.

“It was good. This was my first time being here and doing this, and I really enjoyed it,” said another first-grade teacher. “I feel passionate and strong about fighting for something that is important, and kids are important. We need to bring that up to people’s eyes.”

Jen Sack, the mother of a student in the Douglas County School District, said she attended the rally because she believes the teachers and schools need more funding as well.

“It’s time to stand up. It’s time to get that funding…we’ve got to do better,” she said. “Our kids are our future, and we’re raising the next generation of kids here.”

And with thousands more teachers expected to flood the Capitol Friday – when even more schools have canceled classes and others either don’t have class or had pre-planned teacher in-service days – the teachers at Thursday’s rally said they felt they were making a difference.

“I certainly hope so, because I believe in my union, I believe in my job, and I believe in my district. And I just really hope they listen to us and make some changes,” said one teacher who spoke with Denver7.

At 2 p.m., teachers, lawmakers, parents and staffers gathered on the west steps of the Capitol and spoke for about an hour about the needs for reforms. Watch the speeches in the player below or by clicking here.

Denver7's Marc Stewart, Meghan Lopez and Sally Mamdooh contributed to this report.

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