RFSD News column: What will happen to our dreams for our schools? | PostIndependent.com

RFSD News column: What will happen to our dreams for our schools?

Rob Stein
RFSD News

I received a very gracious resignation letter from a staff member the other day:

"Thank you so much for the opportunity to work in RFSD. It has been a wild ride, but a really great experience!

"I want to share some of the pragmatic reasons that I am leaving my position. After 13 years, I am moving to a more affordable area in the hope that I can buy a little house for myself. My starting salary will be $6,538 higher than here. I've rarely made a big life decision based on finances, but I have arrived at a financial breaking point. In all honesty, I am now in the red as a renter with a modest lifestyle.

"I hope you find a really great replacement for me. I will truly miss my students, school staff and community. Thank you all so much!

"Best wishes to you all personally and professionally."

Teachers and other public school employees are expressing the same sentiments around our state and nation. They love our communities. They love our schools. They love our kids. They are working hard and doing a good job. They either can't afford to stay in the profession any longer or are forced to move to communities with lower costs of living. As I wrote about last month in this Post Independent column, Colorado's average teacher salary ranks 44th when adjusted for cost of living — behind other states in which teachers have recently striked.

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These circumstances are behind the recent peaceful and polite "walk-in" staged by teachers in the Roaring Fork Schools. As reported in the Post Independent, teachers gathered around flagpoles on April 16 for 20 minutes before school hours, "waving cardboard signs and cheering as morning commuters drove by honking in support."

Other communications sent discreetly by teachers association members to their colleagues explained their rationale for the demonstration:

The walk-ins are to protest changes in PERA as well as the inadequate funding of education in Colorado. We live in a state that ranks near the bottom in education spending and wage competitiveness. This lack of funding not only hurts teachers, but more importantly impacts students. … Please respect our desire to have a positive show of solidarity and understand that we will be greeting students and parents as they show up at school.

Roaring Fork teachers bent over backwards to keep the civility in their civil protest.

Contrast that to the Englewood School District in Colorado, where school had to be canceled due to a planned walkout. Or the nine-day teacher strike in Oklahoma, until the legislature awarded a $6,000 raise. Or the nine-day strike in West Virginia, until the state awarded a 5 percent raise. Or Kentucky, where the governor accused striking teachers of subjecting unsupervised children to sexual assault. So far, our teachers have relied upon nondisruptive means to call attention to their plight.

What will it take to get the attention of legislators in Colorado? There isn't much precedent in the history of social change or labor reform for polite requests leading to action, unless they are accompanied by firmer tactics. Technically, teachers can't legally strike in this state unless they first follow a procedure involving the Department of Labor. But acts of civil disobedience don't always conform to the law. And if teachers coordinate a massive sick-out, who is going to take them to court for conspiracy? And if we do, then what? Suspend them? Fire them? That would go against our strategic goal of staff retention, which is difficult enough already because of national teacher shortages.

If legislators want to increase funding for schools so that we can pay our teachers a living wage, is it within their power? Technically, according to Colorado's 1992 TABOR amendment, taxing and spending in Colorado must be approved by a vote of the taxpayers. So the Legislature in Colorado doesn't have the same power as in other states to increase school funding. However, Colorado's Amendment 23, passed in 2000, requires that K-12 funding keep apace with inflation. But because the state didn't have enough money to meet all of its commitments, legislators created a "negative factor" loophole allowing themselves not to fund education and instead to fund other priorities.

There is a gap of about $1,000 per student between the current actual funding and the funding that schools were promised by Amendment 23. To date, education advocates would claim, the state owes its schools more than $5 billion in unpaid commitments under Amendment 23. For the Roaring Fork Schools, this has meant a shortfall of $5.4 million for the current year alone. This equates to a $10,000 pay increase for every teacher in the school district. So the Legislature could reallocate funds to K-12 education up to the level promised under Amendment 23. However, to do so, they would have to gut the rest of the state budget.

Poet Langston Hughes posed the likely eventualities of situations where promises aren't kept and dreams are deferred. They might dry up, they might fester, or they might explode. Colorado teachers might continue their mild protests, and if the education funding situation in Colorado does not change, our teacher workforce will likely continue to wither away — what a terrible waste of talent, our most valuable resource in schools. Or things might fester and our staff become increasingly disenchanted. Or a wave of protests might break out as they have in other states, closing schools and inconveniencing families. All of these eventualities have their risks, and none is guaranteed to solve the problem. What we do know is that when we lose staff members because we cannot pay them enough to live in this area, our students suffer the consequences. If we care about our children and our future, we need to invest in those who spend every day educating our students.

Rob Stein is superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District Re-1.