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Classrooms at Calhan School District on March 15, 2022. Calhan School District serves more than 400 students from preschool to 12th grade. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Mary Rose Donahue keeps a box of scissors in her classroom, not for arts and crafts projects with her students but for the same reason she also stores a baseball bat and a first-aid kit complete with a tourniquet: If a gunman storms the room, each student gets a pair of scissors as a last defense.

“Every teacher’s worst nightmare is a student walking in with a gun,” said Donahue, a language arts teacher at Boulder High School and a senior fellow with the nonprofit Teach Plus Colorado. “But my fear is, what happens if a student I know and love walks in with a gun?”

It’s a perennial worry shared by many educators across Colorado and by the state’s largest teachers union, which is urging lawmakers to prioritize steps to make schools safer and also invest more money into Colorado’s underfunded public education system. 

The Colorado Education Association on Tuesday released its annual Colorado State of Education Report, which paints a grim picture of the realities teachers face — from fears of gun violence in classrooms to trouble making ends meet to increasing demands in light of staff shortages. Many of the challenges are rooted in schools’ urgent need for more funding, the union says. As Colorado has continued to pull funding from public schools through the budget stabilization factor — a budget tool adopted during the Great Recession that allows the General Assembly to give less money to schools than what they are owed — the state’s education system has reached what the union calls “a crisis.”

“As much as we want it to change year after year, we still just have many statistics that we shouldn’t be proud of as Coloradans,” CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said.

A significant number of teachers are indicating that they’re considering resigning or retiring at the end of the school year, she noted, while Colorado teachers have one of the lowest pay rates in the country and struggle to meet students’ needs, which have only grown during the pandemic.

“All of those things combined kind of create the perfect storm for a crisis situation that we are facing here in Colorado,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Budget concerns top the union’s list of legislative priorities this year, particularly as the budget stabilization factor for the current school year will cost schools $321 million. That is part of the more than $10 billion racked up since the tool was first enacted, funding owed by the General Assembly to schools that they have simply had to do without.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, leads teachers, students, parents and supporters during a rally outside the the New America School Lakewood campus, demanding union rights for NAS charter school network teachers. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

So many of the challenges schools and teachers face “flow from funding,” Baca-Oehlert said, noting that Colorado has “put Band-Aids on a gushing wound” when tending to public school funding.

“While we have a strong economy, because of the way our funding structure works, many of the things we should value as Coloradans — our public services and goods — go underfunded,” she said. “That’s why we are looking toward a long-term systemic fix.”

A big part of the solution centers on paying down the mounting debt owed to schools, the union says. Gov. Jared Polis has offered a proposal to make a significant dent in the budget stabilization factor. He wants to reduce the amount withheld from schools to $201 million and look for savings elsewhere to further chip away at the budget stabilization factor debt, Chalkbeat Colorado reported.

Meg Chase, a social studies teacher at Highlands Ranch High School, sees firsthand the toll that inadequate school funding takes on both students and educators. Her classes struggle with research projects without enough computers for each kid, and as enrollment has declined — affecting funding — the school has cut staf. She worries about who in her department will lose their job next year while this year, her class sizes have reached the brink of being unmanageable. She teaches three classes each containing more than 30 students.

“There’s not enough space for high schoolers at that point in a classroom,” said Chase, who is in her fourth year of teaching and is a former fellow with Teach Plus Colorado, which helps teachers give input on education policy.

Educators across Colorado are grappling with similar burdensome workloads, as staff shortages have worsened during the pandemic amid a dwindling pool of substitute teachers. In a survey CEA conducted with its 39,000 members, 85% of respondents said that the teacher shortage is “significantly or somewhat worse than previous school years” while 90% indicated that the support staff shortage in schools has worsened and 82% said that the substitute teacher shortage is more dire than in previous school years.

One of the culprits behind shortages is low pay. CEA’s report on the state of education notes that Colorado teachers earn 35.9% less than other college-educated professionals in the state, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Sixty-three percent of CEA members see sufficient pay and benefits as the biggest driving factor behind feeling valued and respected for their work, according to the association’s survey results. Low pay was the second most common reason educators exited the classroom, after untenable workloads, the report stated.

Chase is able to live off her salary, in part because of the extra pay she receives for coaching cross-country at her school and for serving on her school’s building leadership team. She also relies on savings she accrued after completing graduate school in 2019, when she moved back in with her family and stayed there during much of the pandemic.

“I have a cushion that a lot of other teachers don’t have,” she said.

Colorado’s teacher shortages are compounded by a complex process that stymies educators who move from other states in becoming licensed to teach. To help expand the pool of teachers, Rep. Meghan Lukens, a Democrat from Steamboat Springs, is co-sponsoring House Bill 1064, which would form an agreement between multiple states that would qualify a teacher licensed in one state to teach in another state, essentially transferring their license.

“It creates a more efficient process for teachers moving to Colorado to get their teacher’s license and get back into the classroom as soon as possible,” Lukens, a former social studies teacher, said.

Making schools safer and more supportive

School safety is an equally pressing priority for educators throughout Colorado, where mass shootings have become repeat tragedies. The majority of CEA members — 67% — worry about a mass shooting affecting their school. 

It’s hard to walk into a job every day and wonder, “will this be the day I don’t go home to my family?” Baca-Oehlert said.

CEA is advocating for lawmakers to ban all weapons from school property, facilities, vehicles and school activities, except when law enforcement or trained school resource officers are carrying. The association is also urging lawmakers to ban what they call assault weapons, establish waiting periods for all firearm purchases and restrict gun purchases to individuals 21 or older.

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One bill Democrats plan to be introduced this year would ban the sale of so-called assault weapons in the state.

An idea CEA opposes: allowing educators to carry guns at their school. That approach makes most of CEA’s members — 69% — feel even less safe in their classrooms.

Donahue, the language arts teacher at Boulder High School, is against firearms in schools. One of her students once stole a physical copy of the class’s final exam, and she wonders how guns could be safely out of reach for kids when they find ways to get into almost anything.

“If I can’t keep my final secure, how can I make sure and know and feel safe that all firearms are secure?” Donahue asked.

She feels safe in her school, but the fear of a shooting lingers as she knows that safety can “go away in an instant.” Boulder High School is about 3 miles away from the Table Mesa King Soopers, where a gunman killed 10 people in March 2021.

Every teacher’s worst nightmare is a student walking in with a gun. But my fear is, what happens if a student I know and love walks in with a gun?

— Mary Rose Donahue, Boulder High School teacher

To teachers like Donahue, safer schools also mean more support for both teachers and students’ mental health. Three students at her high school have died by suicide this school year, and she sees mental health challenges crippling her students when they show up to class with their heads down, disengaged, and when they write about their trauma in their assignments. The pressure to help students struggling to cope catches up with her and adds to the mental health challenges in her own life.

Mary Rose Donahue, a language arts teacher now in her fourth year of teaching, poses for a portrait on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, at Boulder High School. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Boulder Valley School District has provided Donahue with six therapy visits, and she has used her health insurance for more visits. She wants a more comprehensive solution from lawmakers, urging them to create a statewide system to support teachers’ mental health so that teachers can access therapy and other resources for as long as they need.

That falls in line with CEA’s push to make sure that Polis’ proposed Office of School Safety is developed with feedback from teachers and that it addresses the mental health needs of both students and educators.

Teachers’ well-being connects directly back to the welfare of their students, educators and lawmakers say.

“It all comes back to the students,” Lukens said. “It always starts with the students. Supporting students is why we are here, and that is our number one priority. And when we’re able to support students better, then we as teachers are going to do better as far as mental health as well.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...