After teacher rallies, the work ‘shifts to the local community level,’ Colorado union president says

Teachers need to convince local school boards to raise salaries, Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said.
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Protesters crowd beneath the State House in protest of a lack of funding for schools, April 27, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) redfored; education; teachers; protest; denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty;

Miriam Wardak, a CU Denver student teacher currently stationed at Munroe Elementary School, holds up a sign as protesters crowd beneath the State House in protest of a lack of funding for schools, April 27, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Erica MeltzerChalkbeat

The wave of activism that brought thousands of red-shirted teachers to the Colorado State Capitol needs to continue at the local level in order to boost teacher pay or school funding, the leader of Colorado’s largest teachers union said Monday.

Teachers need to convince local school boards to raise salaries, Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said, and they need to convince neighbors to vote for a statewide tax in November that would raise another $1.6 billion annually for K-12 education.

“It’s safe to say we won’t be seeing a massive statewide strike,” Dallman said. “The work really shifts to the local community level.”

This is a key difference between Colorado and other states that have seen statewide teacher walkouts. Here lawmakers alone can’t solve this problem.

That doesn’t mean there’s no work to be done at the Capitol. The Colorado General Assembly meets until May 9, and negotiations continue on an overhaul to the public employees pension system. The Republican-backed version that passed the Senate asks public employees, including teachers, to put in an additional 3 percent of their pay and raises the retirement age to 65, while the Democratic version in the House uses taxpayer money, not employee contributions, to buy down an unfunded liability estimated to range from $32 billion to $50 billion.

The 2018-19 budget, signed Monday by Gov. John Hickenlooper, sends school districts an extra $475 per student, a 6.2 percent increase. The budget stabilization or negative factor, the amount that Colorado withholds from local districts when compared to constitutional requirements, is the smallest it’s been since the budget maneuver was invented in 2009 in response to the Great Recession. The budget also includes an extra $30 million for rural districts and an extra $10 million to help address teacher shortages.

Some local unions already are negotiating raises with their school districts.

Dallman also holds out hope that more money will be found for teachers before the end of the session. State Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said she isn’t aware of any additional bills coming on school funding, and the legislature is under pressure from the governor’s office to put any extra money that can be found into increasing the state’s statutory reserves in preparation for the next downturn.

“There isn’t a shortage of interests and needs that the state budget hasn’t been able to address,” Hamner said.

That’s where Initiative 93 comes in. This proposed ballot measure would raise the corporate tax rate and the income tax rate for people earning more than $150,000 a year, as well as change how residential property is assessed for schools. It would raise an estimated $1.6 billion a year for schools.

Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

Unlike the previous tax proposal, which created winners and losers among Colorado’s 178 districts, every district stands to benefit from this new measure.

Dallman said teacher walkouts have helped raise awareness of school funding, and it’s up to teachers to press that point in their local communities.

“The message has to be grassroots,” Dallman said. “People need to have a better understanding of the impact of this underfunding on the school down the road.”

Republican lawmakers wonder why voters should give the state any more money when the legislature just passed a budget with increases for transportation, education, and the pension system. All told, lawmakers had $1.3 billion more to work with than they did for the 2017-18 budget.

“It’s challenging for me to go to the taxpayers and say, yes, we had $1.3 billion in surplus revenue, but we need more money from you – whatever the issue is,” said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican. “That becomes a challenge for me.”

The GOP argues that local school boards can ask their voters for additional local property tax money if needed.

But voters around the state have varied greatly in their willingness to pass local measures, and advocates for more funding say that’s contributed to inequities that can only be addressed by the state.

The clear steps laid out by Dallman – protect pension benefits, negotiate pay raises, pass Initiative 93 – also include electing the union’s endorsed candidate for governor, Cary Kennedy, and legislators who will support more money for education.

Those steps still need to be articulated to rank-and-file teachers. At last week’s rallies, many teachers said they don’t know what the next steps will be, though they hoped the large rallies increase awareness. One said she knew the union had endorsed a gubernatorial candidate but couldn’t remember her name, even though Kennedy twice addressed the crowd and Dallman’s parting words included a call to volunteer for Kennedy’s campaign.

Many teachers said they were regular voters,and some had canvassed for union-backed candidates in local races. Now they see a need to be politically engaged beyond that in order to raise awareness of pressing needs in their schools. Those range from large class sizes and a lack of counselors to broken desks and outdated technology.

Andrea Lohse is a middle school math teacher in the Cherry Creek School District. Her building still has asbestos. One stall in the bathroom is missing its door, and too often there’s no soap. Class sizes are large. Yet she’s never protested before.

“I never thought this would be me.” She said she’s never been involved in politics before, either. But now, she said, teachers are tired of their working conditions. “We’re fed up with the funding and the level of respect we get.”

Lisa Schott, an elementary school teacher-librarian from Colorado Springs, said class sizes at her school can go up to 30 students. She said politics is outside her comfort zone, but she’s realizing how important activism is to making change.

“I don’t like that it’s a political thing, but the realization is you have to speak out,” she said.

Kira Aarestad, who teaches English and leadership at an alternative high school in the Adams 12 Five Star District, said, “I am surprised we finally have enough people having this conversation.” The challenge will be how to keep momentum, she said. “I hope this gives the push that we need.”

Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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