This Friday, thousands of teachers have taken personal days at the same time, forcing Poudre School District to cancel classes for the day.
Colorado schools and teachers are not getting the support they need. In a state that appears to boom with prosperity, issues of overcrowded classrooms, the inability of teachers to receive a living wage, lack of mental health care for students in need, inadequate school supplies, lack of building maintenance and even a shortage of bus drivers is preventing a dedicated workforce from doing their jobs. In protest, the teachers are forced to make a stand. On Friday, April 27, Poudre School will be closed and the teachers will meet at the State Capitol in Denver to confront state legislators.
In an interview with Christophe Febvre, President of the Poudre School District Board of Education, he says that everyone working in education is feeling the pressure, struggling to balance the issues of cost of living raises, basic maintenance on school buildings, access to mental health care for children and even hiring enough bus drivers.
The general public is unaware of these issues. He states, “Teachers are naturally passionate about their professions. One of the foundations of teaching is the desire to help kids and they never stop giving.” Students within the Poudre School District tend to perform well and test well. The “top flight” students excel nationwide. Therefore the public is unaware of critical weaknesses in the system.
Teachers must have a solid base income to survive. As the cost of living continues to rise, especially the price of homes, teachers come under so much pressure that at some point, they may be forced to look elsewhere, even out of state, for jobs that pay a living wage. “Fort Collins is a wonderful place to live”, says Fabvre. “But only if you can afford it.”
While teachers have a significant need for more pay, there are many more issues, system-wide, needing to be addressed. For example, Irish Elementary and Harris Bilingual school need fluent, Spanish-speaking teachers and Fort Collins is having to look as far as Denver and beyond for bi-lingual teachers who may or may not be able to afford to live here.
School buildings must be maintained, just like any other. Schools that need upkeep, have walls cracking, poor insulation, heating problems and uncomfortable working conditions. One of the schools Febvre mentioned was built in 1948.
Another issue that the public doesn’t see is the need for mental health care for children. Autism, ADD, Anorexia and other disorders are present in all schools and the teachers are obligated to try and educate these children. A single child with a disorder that includes such behavior as hyperactivity can disrupt the whole class. If a teacher has a class of 24 to 28 kids and two of them are struggling, the teacher becomes so handicapped that he or she can’t help, or teach, anyone. High school principals are begging for the mental and emotional support for kids but they can’t get it. Though the lack of mental health care in Larimer County is currently being addressed, it could be a long time before the funding becomes available for the schools.
There is a great deal of pressure on the retirement plan (PERA) as well. The district has to find more dollars to continue the plan. While there are many different approaches under discussion right now, these dollars would have to come directly off the bottom line for other services and necessities.
Finally, there is the lack of bus drivers. The district did increase the entry-level rate of what they’re willing to pay, but they still can’t pay enough for bus drivers.
The School Board has spoken strongly in support of the actions of the teachers. Teachers see the walkout as an empowered moment where they can meet with the legislators at the state level and draw attention to their causes and concerns. The schools will be closed but the teachers are advocating for the children in the community even more than for themselves. The walkout is not a strike. Febvre states, “Striking wouldn’t make sense anyway,” and that the Ballot Initiative 93, also named, the Thriving Community Initiative, needs signatures on a petition to be decided by voters.
Senator John Kefalas whole-heartedly supports the event. He praises the walkout as a “significant event” drawing attention to 1000 or more PSD teachers and employees, under appreciated and underpaid, who will be given a voice. He will make himself available as Democrats will reserve committee rooms from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm. In a telephone interview on the afternoon of April 26, he said that ten of the largest school districts in Colorado will be closed on Friday and that in spite of inflation, the salaries of school employees have been cut by 17%.
While Kafalas admits that Colorado is at the lowest average in salaries for educators, the previous figure of $47,000 per year has been upgraded to $51,000 and that the state legislators have set a goal to find the means to provide better funding for K-12 education. He also cited Senate Bill 200, designed to add $225,000 to PERA (Colorado Public Employee Retirement Association) in order to address the shortfalls.
Anyone who wants to add their support can join the rally at the State Capital building on Friday, April 27.