Roaring Fork teachers divide, conquer to lend voice, keep schools running

Sopris Elementary School teachers Kat Warder and Talitha Basom have each others’ backs today, as thousands of teachers are expected to rally in Denver for better teacher pay and education funding.

While Warder will be at the state Capitol lending her voice to the statewide cause, Basom will be at the Glenwood school as usual this morning gathering up her students for a field trip to the Science Museum in Grand Junction.

About 100 teachers, Roaring Fork Schools administrators, members of the public and students turned out for a local rally Thursday evening outside the district offices in Glenwood Springs. The event was organized as a precursor to the big demonstration in Denver today.

Some Front Range school districts chose to cancel school today in anticipation of a mass teacher walk-out to attend the rally.

Locally, however, Roaring Fork Schools opted to allow a delegation of four teachers from each district school in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt to head to Denver, while others were asked to stay behind and teach so that students would not have to miss a day of learning.

“I’ve been teaching for 16 years, and I wish Colorado would pay like Texas does,” said Basom, a third-grade teacher who got her start in her home state of Texas but wants to stay in Colorado.

“I’m single, and I rent, but I would like to own my own home here someday and have a family,” Basom said during a rally outside the Roaring Fork School District Offices Thursday evening.

Warder will be one of the Sopris Elementary representatives at the state rally.

“I’m going there for them,” she said, holding up a collage of student pictures from her school.

“We need more funding, and we need to be able to retain our teachers, because the turnover only hurts them,” Warder said.

Likewise for Glenwood Springs High School teachers Greg Sustad and Brent Wamsley. Sustad is part of their school’s delegation that’s headed to Denver, and Wamsley will stay back home to teach.

“Obviously, I value the action that’s being taken,” Wamsley said. “Just the idea that we’re among the last in spending for education, yet our growth is toward the top of the country speaks for itself.

“What’s forgotten is the importance of that money that goes to education,” he said. “As teachers, we try to help every student the best that we can while they’re with us, and where else do you get that?”

With a $1.2 billion surplus in available state funds this year, Sustad said a good portion of that needs to go to education.

“It’s hard to make a living wage in this valley, so I’m here tonight and I’m going to Denver tomorrow in support of raising teacher salaries and increasing funding for education,” he said.

Based on the revised data from the National Education Association just this week, Colorado’s ranking among the 50 states in terms of per pupil funding is actually 31st, and not 46th, as previously reported, according to teacher Rhonda Tatham, who is president of the Roaring Fork Community Education Association.

The average Colorado teacher salary is $51,808, placing the state below the national average by 15.2 percent, she said in a prepared statement sent out before Thursday’s Glenwood rally.

“More significantly, teacher salaries in Colorado have actually lost ground in the last decade and have decreased by 6.7 percent since the 2008-09 school year,” she said. “Whether its ranking 31st or 46th, the reality is that teachers cannot live off the pay they’re getting. That’s why you are seeing teachers with two, even three jobs just to make ends meet.”

To fill the classroom gap today, even Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Rob Stein will be picking up a social studies teaching assignment at Glenwood Springs High School for the day.

“We should celebrate that we’ve done this in a non-divisive way,” Stein said in addressing those at the rally. “The concern is that this is a crisis, in that we have teachers who can’t afford to live, not just in the communities where they work, but even close enough to where they work so that it makes sense.”

Roaring Fork school board member Matt Hamilton attended a smaller rally in Denver Thursday morning, and said he supports the teachers and other education workers who will be at the state Capitol today.

“When you look at Colorado, we have a highly educated workforce,” he said. “But when you look at who those people are, we’re bringing people in from the outside, and we’re not doing enough to educate our own kids.”

Carbondale Middle School student Quinn Wells also attended the Thursday rally with her two teacher parents.

“I just think that education is really important, because there are a lot of kids around the world my age who don’t even get to go to school,” Wells said.

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