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Colorado Springs teachers to swarm the State House on Friday

Author: Debbie Kelley, The Gazette - April 24, 2018 - Updated: April 24, 2018

An unidentified teacher holds up a placard during a rally outside the State Capitol on April 16 in Denver. Teachers from around the state were on hand to demand better salaries as lawmakers under the dome were set to debate a pension reform measure to cut retirement benefits as well as take-home pay. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

About 500 District 11 teachers from Colorado Springs will join other educators to swarm the state Capitol on Friday to demand more money for education.

Leslie Miller spends about $500 every school year on snacks, project materials and other supplies for her English as a Second Language students at Monroe Elementary School.

She’d like to cut that expense from her household budget but said that won’t happen unless lawmakers pony up more money for education.

Related: Colorado teachers have a lot to sweat out in 2018 legislature’s final days

“Our schools are underfunded, understaffed, unprotected, and now our legislators are messing with PERA (the Public Employees’ Retirement Association),” Miller said.

She’ll be among up to 10,000 teachers expected to gather at the Statehouse to march, rally, speak to legislators and otherwise make their voices heard.

The Thursday and Friday action was called for by the Colorado Education Association.

Teachers say they want to raise awareness, elicit a commitment from lawmakers on long-term, sustainable education funding and not be short-charged on their pension plans.

“This is a response to the frustration of education being chronically underfunded by the state and education not being seen as a priority by the state Legislature,” said Kevin Vick, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, the union for D-11 certified staff and the only collective-bargaining teachers’ group in the Pikes Peak region.

The large number of projected participants has forced districts statewide, including D-11, to cancel classes Friday.

Superintendent Nicholas Gledich has declared Friday a “non-contact student day,” meaning teachers still should report to work for professional development, but students have the day off.

D-11, the region’s largest district with about 27,400 students, wouldn’t have enough substitute teachers to cover those anticipated to go to Denver on Friday, he said.

“We don’t have the supervisory staff to ensure student safety,” said D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

Teachers who are absent Friday will need to take a personal leave day, she added.

It was not a decision Miller took lightly.

“I didn’t want to put my students in danger or leave my students, so I’m thankful it’s a no student contact day,” she said. “It’s time legislators see how difficult it’s become and know that their decisions are making our jobs more difficult instead of easier for students.”

Academy School District 20, with nearly 26,000 students, is assessing whether it can hold classes Friday, spokeswoman Allison Cortez said Monday.

D-20 Superintendent Mark Hatchell sent a memo to staff asking how many will be absent Friday.

“Our aim is to have a decision and corresponding plan in place by Tuesday afternoon,” Cortez said in an email.

Manitou Springs School District 14 won’t hold classes Friday, Assistant Superintendent Tim Miller said Monday.

Employees will report for a staff work day, he said, or use a personal leave day.

“We have not done an exact count of the number of teachers who want to attend the rally,” Miller said, “but we know it exceeds the number of substitute teachers and administrators available to cover the absences.”

Widefield School District 3 is closed Friday by coincidence, not for the rally, said spokeswoman Samantha Briggs.

Falcon District 49, the region’s third-largest district, will hold classes Friday, said spokesman David Nancarrow.

Said Vick, the local union president: “The real crux is that all of this has been done to us instead of with us. Legislators continually inject disconnected policies into our environment that don’t help kids and make it increasingly more difficult to do our jobs.”

This will be the second teachers’ rally this month. During an April 16 “Day of Action,” about 500 teachers from across the state advocated for lawmakers to allocate more education funding before finalizing the $28.9 billion state budget, which takes effect July 1.

Only a few D-11 teachers went to that event, Vick said.

“We’re expecting a fairly significant number to participate this time,” he said. “It’s not only about taking away our resources through the budget stabilization factor, (but) at the same time adding requirements that have taken more resources – different reporting mandates, expanding the accountability systems, adding administrative tasks that don’t relate to kids’ learning.”

During the recession, the state used earmarked education dollars to meet other needs, such as transportation, which created what’s now an $828 million “budget stabilization” shortfall in school funding.

So Colorado’s per-pupil funding is about $2,160 below the national average.

The General Assembly is considering buying down the debt by adding $150 million in revenue to K-12 schools for the next fiscal year and allocating $35 million for more school security and resource officers.

Legislators also want to reform PERA by increasing employee contributions to 11 percent, up 3 percent, and by raising the retirement age to 65, among other changes.

The worst part, said Joe Schott, a 17-year Latin teacher at Doherty High School, is that increasing the employees’ contribution “just undercuts the stability of PERA, which means there’s an agenda nobody is talking about.”

Teachers earn less than other professionals and are at the bottom of the pay disparity scale, said Schott, who intends to be at the Capitol Friday.

“People become teachers because they want to teach kids, but they also want to live a decent life,” he said. “But this isn’t just about teachers – it’s about funding our schools.

“People of Colorado Springs showed they’re behind our teachers with last year’s mill levy override in D-11. But as a state, we haven’t hit the most basic funding levels, so the kids aren’t being served as they should be. That needs to change.”

Debbie Kelley, The Gazette

Debbie Kelley, The Gazette