Summit County teachers stage protest Tuesday, demand public education funding, benefit protection
Dozens of teachers held a protest at the Highway 9 entrance to Summit High School on Tuesday morning demanding the state fulfill its education funding obligations. The protest was part of the leadup to the anticipated statewide teacher protest on Friday that will cause Summit and numerous other Colorado school districts to cancel classes.
The protest was held before classes started to avoid disrupting student schedules, and was led by several members of the local teacher’s union, the Summit County Education Association. Members wore red and waved signs at traffic. Kim Phipps, a Summit High math teacher and member of the SCEA who helped organize the protest, said that Summit teachers were standing in solidarity with other teachers across the state.
“We want to get the community to support teachers statewide from schools that have been chronically underfunded in the last 10 years,” Phipps said. “We’re hoping to raise awareness and help educate our community about how dire the situation is elsewhere.”
Phipps added that the protest was also meant to explain why Summit and many other school districts are canceling classes on Friday.
“We hope the Summit community understands that we don’t take taking a day off and closing down the schools lightly. We’re only doing it because the situation is very serious.”
At the heart of the battle between teachers and the state government is a broken promise for funding. Amendment 23, a state constitutional amendment passed back in 2000, was meant to guarantee steady increases in funding for Colorado’s public schools. However, that funding has been stymied because of a budget stabilization measure that has kept most of that money away from schools.
“Amendment 23 was supposed to add education funding at the rate of inflation plus 1 percent,” Phipps explained. “Instead, over the last 10 years that’s resulted in a $4 billion loss in education funding. This year alone we’re supposed to be allotted over $800 million, but it looks like only $150 million is going to be allocated because of TABOR. It isn’t right. Our kids deserves that money, and our kids deserve great schools.”
Amy Poppie, another SHS math teacher, said that the lack of money has very significant effects on school staffing.
“There are 3,000 teaching positions that need to be filled across the state,” Poppi said. “We also need more counselors for our students to address the social, emotional issues that kids are dealing with these days.”
Poppie added that it has become very difficult for school districts to recruit new teaching talent because of the lack of funding.
“Every time we try to hire new teachers, we don’t get very many applicants,” Poppie said. “Right now, we’re trying to hire a math teacher, and we’ve had maybe five people apply. The person who we really wanted can’t move here for the pay she was offered. Because we can’t fill those positions, teachers are having to pick up extra work and take away even more planning time.”
Phipps added that the funding shortage has been so severe that half of Colorado K-12 students are on a four-day school schedule due to transport costs, and those schedule cuts have in turn been used to avoid paying for full-time paraprofessionals, who help students with special needs or language skills in classrooms.
In solidarity with teachers across the state facing such difficulties, Phipps said that 130 Summit teachers have called in personal days on Friday and will join their peers from across the state at the state capitol for a mass teacher protest. That means Summit schools will be closed Friday, leading to headaches for at least some Summit parents who are forced to find other arrangements for their kids.
Jennifer Schenk, a parent of a Summit Middle School student, wrote to the Summit Daily and said that while she supported the struggle of Colorado teachers to get funding, she was disappointed schools will be closed on Friday.
“I fully support teachers earning higher salaries and keeping their full retirement benefits,” Schenk wrote. “However, I am frustrated that our teachers have chosen to take the day off on Friday, and that the district has canceled classes. I believe teachers could advocate for themselves by sending a smaller group to the Capitol or by taking action in ways that don’t affect students and parents.”
Schenk said that the school closure is especially tough on parents as spring break was just last week.
“The school cancellation negatively affects many families across the district,” she said. “Students just finished spring break and have had 11 days off school for scheduled breaks since mid-February. To ask working parents to take another day off immediately following spring break is really tough and will also adversely affect local businesses on Friday.”
Phipps said the union recognizes the hardship parents are facing, and that the decision wasn’t an easy one to make.
“We acknowledge that this timing is not great so quickly after break,” Phipps said. “When SCEA was deciding whether or not to participate in the statewide rally this Friday, we were really concerned about the impact this would have on families, particularly families with younger children. Teachers at all levels all struggled with the idea of not seeing their students for a full day of instruction, especially at this time of the year.”
However, she said the union could not turn its back on fellow teachers across the state.
“This was not a rash decision, there was a lot of conversation that happened about us participating. Unfortunately, this was the day the rally was scheduled, and we decided the issue was important enough that we needed to make our voices heard along with other school districts. We hope we can send a message in this one day so it won’t happen again, and so we can avoid the weeks of shutdowns in other states.”
Phipps added that the SCEA has tried to mitigate the impact the shutdown will have on students and parents, with one member working with the Breckenridge Recreation Center to provide a day camp for 6- to 12-year-olds whose parents can’t look after them on Friday.
Ultimately, Phipps hopes that students, parents and legislators can draw on the experience of having a day without teachers and use it to lobby for public school funding.
“This is a fight for the future of our profession,” Phipps said. “If the state continues to treat teachers this way, there won’t be any teachers left.”