Teachers protest funding gap, some PERA changes at Capitol

Educators hold a rally on the west steps of the state Capitol April 16. The group also marched on the Capitol grounds before entering the building around 10 a.m.

About 400 educators, many from Englewood, voiced opinion on public-pension system and school funding

Performances of teachers singing a 1980s rock hit in protest have swept the nation — from Oklahoma to West Virginia to Kentucky — and now, the show came to Colorado.

“We’re not gonna take it — no, we ain’t gonna take it,” a crowd of educators sang in the state Capitol’s stairwell near the House and Senate chambers, coming together in Denver from across Colorado to advocate for more school funding and to oppose some changes to the public-pension system.

The “Day of Action” saw about 400 teachers, staff and other education personnel — about 150 came from Englewood — march on the perimeter of the Capitol and file into the building to talk to lawmakers. The protest April 16 was organized by the Colorado Education Association, which represents more than 35,000 educators, many of whom say too many teachers in the state are forced to work second jobs and pay out of pocket for classroom supplies.

But it wasn’t about striking, said Kerrie Dallman, president of the association.

“We haven’t asked anyone to walk off the job,” said Dallman, who attended the event. These “educators coming down to the Capitol are using their earned personal leave.”

Many schools and districts — including schools in Jefferson County — planned to hold “walk-ins” instead, Dallman said, by coming together to raise awareness outside of schools before class. But in Englewood Schools, so many employees planned to be absent that day that the district canceled school for all but its preschool.

One of them was Heather Curnett, a teacher at Clayton Elementary School.

“Teachers in Englewood appreciate our community,” Curnett said. This “is not about asking them for more. This is about the state.”

Several teachers voiced opposition to defined-contribution pensions as opposed to the current defined-benefits system. Changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association system, or PERA, could involve more defined-contribution plans, similar to a 401(k), in which the employee chooses to fund the plan. Democratic lawmakers prefer the current defined-benefits structure, in which the employer guarantees a specific retirement amount and bears the risk of promising the investment will be available. Democrats say more market reliance would introduce too much uncertainty.

But retirement wasn’t the only issue at hand — Deirdre Boyd, a Steamboat Springs High School teacher, said some teachers in her area work two or three jobs to get by because of the high cost of living in the rural district.

Henry Roman, a teacher from Columbian Elementary School in northwest Denver, said class size is a pressing issue in his city.

Teachers in general have multiple jobs and can’t afford to live where they work, said Roman, who had to wait tables for his first five years as a teacher.

“If we want to recruit and retain teachers, we have to offer a living wage and a viable retirement,” Roman said.

The Colorado Education Association wrote that based on a survey of more than 2,200 of its members, educators are spending, on average, $656 per year out of their own pockets to buy students pencils, glue, binders, snacks and toothpaste, and covering costs of school lunch and field trips. Extrapolating that to the full association, members may be spending as much as $23 million per year out of pocket, according to its website.

The upcoming 2018-19 state budget plans to give a $150 million boost to K-12 school funding, which House Democrats have called “the biggest buydown since what used to be called the ‘negative factor’” — a budget-cut mechanism to school funding — started in 2009.

But advocates are pushing for more because the state is currently underfunding schools by about $830 million, Dallman said. Per-pupil spending in Colorado has ranked near the bottom in the nation.

On the other hand, the PERA proposal could include changes to the retirement age and other measures to shore up the vastly underfunded program within 30 years.

Erin Swain, a teacher at Century Middle School in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, took issue with possible changes.

“Bottom line is, we were given a promise by our Legislature for our pension, and they are reneging,” Swain said.

Becky Moraja, a teacher at Colorado’s Finest High School of Choice in Englewood, said she and her family moved in with her mother in the past to survive on the salaries of her and her husband, who is also a teacher, rather than work two jobs.

“We’re willing to contribute more” to PERA, but some parts of the bill go too far, said Moraja, who is thankful for recent bond funding Englewood voters have passed but lamented that Colorado students are among the least funded in the country.

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