Skip to contents
Education

“I can’t afford to live here”: Colorado teachers plea for wage help, but solutions still prove divisive

Democrats are proposing a state fund for pay increases while Republican lawmakers want to give bonuses to high-performing teachers. But, either way, the path for state funds to reach teacher paychecks remains tricky.

Teachers, students, and supporters picket in front of East High School as Denver Public School teachers enter their first day of strikes on Feb. 11, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Doug Freeman moved back to Colorado last year and began teaching fourth grade at Edith Teter Elementary School in Fairplay, but he’s already eyeing a move out of state.

Colorado is his home — he grew up in Littleton — and he doesn’t want to leave. But he might not have much of a choice. “I can’t afford to live here,” said Freeman, who works another job in addition to his teaching job and further supplements his income with three to four jobs during the summer.

Still, he struggles to balance his budget.

It’s a common plight among Colorado teachers, according to Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert, who noted that teachers increasingly are resorting to desperate measures, like working multiple jobs, living in their cars or relying on free and reduced lunch for their own children.

“These are people who are highly educated, who have bachelor’s degrees for sure, oftentimes master’s degrees, and they are not making enough money to support their own families,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Abbey Ashby, a teacher at McGlone Academy in Denver, holds a sign at a rally in support of Denver Public Schools teachers rally on the steps of the Capitol Building on Jan. 30, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Frustration among Colorado’s teachers is mounting, she said, amid one of the strongest economies in the country that nonetheless shows the state lagging when it comes to wage competitiveness for teachers. “We have an upside-down system,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Routing state dollars to teacher pay can be a challenge since local school districts dictate the salaries of their employees. While Democratic and Republican lawmakers have heard the financial woes of educators, they disagree on how to help teachers get paid more.

Last week, Colorado teachers came to the Capitol to explain their financial struggles to lawmakers as part of what’s become a kind-of annual plea for help. Two years ago, educators were so fed up that they literally swarmed the Legislature and demanded answers from legislators.

State Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Lakewood, has introduced a measure — Senate Bill 89 — that would create a dedicated incentive fund for teacher pay raises, which she said would be a first-of-its-kind state fund.

Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 74, that would reward Colorado’s highly effective teachers with bonuses of about $2,000 each — part of a package of education bills put forth by Republicans that also includes a measure to give an income tax credit to teachers for classroom costs covered out of pocket.

Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, delivers his idea Ñ carving out $50 million from existing education funds in Colorado to pay bonuses to Òhigh-performingÓ teachers Ñ at The Colorado Sun’s Big Ideas 2020 Forum at the Cable Center on the University of Denver campus on Jan. 14, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Lawmakers’ proposals follow teacher strikes in Colorado school districts in the last year, with educators from Denver Public Schools and Park County RE-2 having banded together to demand better pay.

Freeman was on the front lines of the strike in Fairplay as part of the Park County district negotiating team, advocating for a pay increase for district staff both inside and outside the classroom — including teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers and custodians.

He moved back to Colorado from Perry, Ohio — east of Cleveland — where he was earning a $52,000 salary.

His starting pay in Park County RE-2 was $38,000. He’s now making a little more than $40,000, and if he continues in his district and works until he reaches the top of the payscale, he’ll make what he would have made had he stayed in Ohio — a little over $60,000.

A steep cost of living in Fairplay has only added to 52-year-old Freeman’s financial stress. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, he said, is about $1,100, forcing him to spend more than half of his take-home pay on housing. He also has more than $40,000 in student loans.

Even with the additional jobs Freeman has taken on — working for an accounting firm in the evenings and spending the summer waiting tables, dogsitting and cleaning houses — he’s still finding it difficult to make ends meet, let alone help his daughters with their college tuition, “which breaks my heart as a parent.”

He also worries having to work another job after school pulls his attention from grading papers, preparing lesson plans and ensuring his students get the best education.

Teachers, students, and supporters picket in front of East High School as Denver Public School teachers enter their first day of strikes on February 11, 2019 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

D.J. Pollert, an eighth-grade English and history teacher at Summit Middle School who lives in Breckenridge and earns close to $57,000, also spreads himself among side jobs. Those include bartending, playing music in a band with another teacher most weekends, coaching two sports at school and working for his homeowner association to help maintain his neighborhood.

His wife, also a teacher at Summit Middle School with a salary of more than $52,000, coaches as well. Still, he said, they’re constantly battling debt.

The family of four — they have two young daughters — could live off the parents’ teacher salaries if they lived modestly, he said. But to try to live comfortably, eat nutritiously and have some fun every once in a while, he said, is “extremely difficult.”

Both Pollert and his wife, whose starting salaries in the district were about $42,000, completed their master’s degrees last summer and are each constantly pursuing more credits in order to climb the salary schedule so that they can continue to live and teach in their community.

Pollert said his family is lucky in comparison to some, as they were able to buy a small townhome. Even though the mortgage absorbs a big part of their budget, he’s glad to be building equity.

Another major expense for the family: daycare for their younger daughter, which Pollert likened to a second mortgage. As fortunate as Pollert feels, he said it’s not certain his family will be able to afford to keep living and working in Summit County.

Tara Dye also teaches in Summit County and owns a condo with her husband — a purchase made possible because the couple lived with Dye’s parents for almost two years.

The preschool teacher, who has a master’s degree, makes $53,000. Her husband, an evidence technician for the local police department, earns about the same amount, she said. Both are climbing out from under college and credit-card debt.

“But it always just seems like there’s another thing,” Dye said, pointing to emergencies like needing new car tires or having to go to the doctor.

Danielson said pressure from people across the state motivated her to develop legislation that would provide teachers with a more livable wage. She said educator pay should be among the Legislature’s top priorities.

School supplies in a classroom at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Danielson’s idea centers on creating a dedicated incentive fund, known as the Educator Pay Raise Fund, with a $15 million commitment from the state to start.

All of Colorado’s 178 school districts would be eligible to apply for funds, Danielson said, but priority would be given to those districts unable to allocate local dollars to teacher salaries.

The legislation would require that in the second year of the fund and beyond, participating districts would be responsible for contributing matching dollars, increasing their portion of funding over time while being weaned off state funding.

“We want to help you, but this is a priority that needs to be sustained by the district,” Danielson said.

CEA is endorsing the legislation, framing it as a good first step in helping the state’s underpaid teacher workforce.

The $15 million that would jumpstart the fund is “insignificant” in light of the number of educators across the state, Freeman said. Still, he supports the fund as voters would know exactly how the money would be spent.

“We do believe that something is better than nothing,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Lundeen’s proposal would also route extra funds to teachers, though only those designated as “highly effective,” in the form of $2,000 bonuses.

Last year, 47% of public school teachers in Colorado were rated as highly effective, according to Lundeen, who wants to pour $50 million into the bonuses.

“The way to get more of something is to reward it,” he said, referring to the high performance of educators.

Sixth-grade students work through a Spanish language exercise at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Some fear that that approach isn’t a fair one. Freeman views the educator evaluation process, which has been controversial from its inception, as too subjective.

Dye, from Summit County, criticizes the concept of bonuses for highly effective teachers, saying it could ruin collaboration among educators, instead pitting them against one another with a kind of competition that does not belong in education.

The idea of bonuses for highly effective teachers also strikes Baca-Oehlert as problematic, largely because she sees the current evaluation system as flawed in the way it links teacher effectiveness to standardized test scores.

Baca-Oehlert noted that until everyone is fairly compensated, bonuses shouldn’t be part of the conversation.

What will truly motivate teachers, she said, are the resources to support their students — things like smaller class sizes and mental health support, which is what some Denver teachers were calling for during last year’s strike.

“What I need are the things that are going to actually help me help my students,” Baca-Oehlert said.


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.