Thousands of educators, allies flood Colorado’s Capitol

Author: Gabrielle Bryant - April 27, 2018 - Updated: April 28, 2018

Teachers fill the amphitheater in Civic Center Park for a rally April 27 in Denver. More than 10,000 teachers from more than 20 districts scattered across Colorado are demonstrating as part of a burgeoning teacher uprising from the East to the interior West that is demanding more tax dollars be spent in public schools. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Thousands of Colorado teachers swarmed outside the state Capitol and across Civic Center Park on Friday in the second day of demonstrations in Denver over teacher pay and school funding.

Local educators donned red shirts as part of a nationwide effort by teachers who have walked out of their classrooms and schools to bring awareness to a lack of resources.

Echoes of  demonstrators chanting “fund our schools” and “this is what democracy looks like” could be heard blocks away.

Teachers from Denver, Cherry Creek and other Colorado school districts began to gather during the morning commute, and thousands more poured into the area as the day progressed. A number of Colorado schools canceled classes Thursday or Friday because of so many teachers taking the day off to protest.

Many passing motorists honked to express support for the teachers, while others on streets blocked by the marchers sounded their horns to get teachers to move out of the way.

Jeffrey McMahon, a Denver teacher of 13 years, said he showed up to today’s marches because he doesn’t understand how Colorado can have such a thriving economy, but its schools remain grossly underfunded and teacher pay is so low.

McMahon said he can’t afford to buy a home where he teaches and picks up odd jobs to make ends meet. He also said he was upset that the media have inaccurately represented educators’ views.

“What we are fighting for is more funding. The media right now is putting us out to be these whiny people that have summer offs and don’t do a lot for our kids,” he said.

“I’m a therapist, a counselor, a dad. I’m a teacher and artist,” McMahon added. ” … I’m a social emotional processing instructor. We are the fabric of this nation. I’m still flabbergasted as to why we have to gather like this.”

Teachers who spoke with Colorado Politics were in general agreement that their school districts lack the resources to pay them a livable wage, and their students are feeling the impact.

Teachers in Colorado are paid an average of $52,728 annually as of the 2017-18 school year, the Colorado Department of Education reported Friday in correcting lower numbers released earlier.

Jameelah Whimbush, a special education middle school teacher at Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she is highly concerned about the potential that funding may decline for the program she works with.

She said she spends up to $300 a month from her personal money on school supplies for her students. Whimbush is “eager that these protests will bring forth change,” although she regrets having to take off from school for this reason.

The demonstrations come as Colorado lawmakers have agreed to give schools their largest budget increase since the recession.

But teachers say that the state has a long way to make up for a $822 million shortfall under the provisions of a voter-approved amendment aimed at increasing school funding and countering the effect of the state constitution’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

No immediate increases are expected, largely because the tax-and-spending limits prevent lawmakers from raising taxes on their own.

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke briefly to the crowd to express support for teachers’ goals, and congratulated them “on making your voices heard.”

The governor tried to assure them his administration in more than seven years had done a lot, but clearly not enough to satisfy the rally-goers.

“You’ve had your voice heard on this hill,” Hickenlooper said of the Capitol’s perch overlooking the park. “You’ve all chosen one of the most notable professions. I know how hard it is. I was a teacher’s assistant for a year in college, and let me tell you it’s the hardest job I ever had.”

He added: “I know you deserve to get a fair pay. I know you deserve to live in the communities where you teach. I know you deserve to get a fair pay.”

Not all of Friday’s protesters were teachers. Tyrone El-Amin came to the rally to support his mother who has been a Denver Public School teacher for more than 20 years.

He said he’s optimistic that the turnout of the protests will have an impact on lawmakers addressing lack of school funding and is interested in seeing whether revenue collected from recreational marijuana sales will add to the pot.

And Denver East High School sophomore Taylor Lucas, referring to the teachers’ activism, said: “If teachers are involved in the community, they get a chance to know their students better and can understand our needs,” said Lucas.

Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics and The Associated Press contributed.

Gabrielle Bryant

Gabrielle Bryant

Gabrielle Bryant is a freelance journalist, host and Emmy Award-winning politics producer. You might recognize her TV work from "Colorado Inside Out" Friday nights on CPT12.