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Forum on education funding draws a crowd in Mancos

Teachers, community urge legislators to prioritize education

More than 100 people from Southwest Colorado showed up in Mancos Saturday morning to advocate for more state educational funding – with a few legislative ears on hand.

State Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, attended the forum, which was hosted at Mancos Elementary School by the Mancos Education Association, Education Association of Cortez and Durango Education Association. Educators shared stories of the hardships of living on low pay and working in low-resourced classrooms, and urged the two politicians to support Senate Bill 89, which would create a separate pot of money for teacher pay.

Organizer Greg Lawler, who serves on the Ridgway school board and works for the Colorado Education Association, said it’s a matter of legislative priorities, and that education sits at the bottom of the list.

“That is the moral dilemma that we have in this state right now,” he said.

The forum came ahead of the March 19 March on the Colorado State Capitol, organized by the Colorado Education Association, a labor union for teachers and educational workers. Marchers hope to show legislators a strong display of support for Senate Bill 89, since it will take place right before the Colorado General Assembly discusses the Long Bill, the annual appropriations act.

The organizers leading the charge point to a variety of data showing that Colorado ranks low for competitive salaries, especially in rural parts of the state.

Advocacy group Great Education Colorado found the state to be last in the nation for competitive wages, with starting salaries for teachers at 67% those of professions demanding a similar education level. And according to the Colorado Department of Education, in the 2018-19 school year, the average teacher salary was $54,950, but was significantly lower in Montezuma County: $37,763 for Montezuma-Cortez; $40,481 for Dolores; and $40,969 for Mancos.

The campaigners point to other problems with state funding allocations too. According to Education Week, in June 2019 Colorado was spending $10,053 per student, about $2,700 below the national average.

And in the 2010-11 fiscal year, the Legislature established the “budget stabilization factor,” which was “a way to reduce funding to districts to balance the state budget,” according to the CDE.

As of July, the budget stabilization factor stands at $572.4 million – a debt owed to schools, campaigners say.

At the March 19 march, campaigners are asking for livable wages, the end of the budget stabilization factor by 2022, and a ballot initiative in 2020 to raise education revenue.

One way they hope to achieve these goals is through Senate Bill 20-089, or the Educator Pay Raise Fund. SB89 was introduced in the Legislature in January and would create a funding source for increasing the minimum pay for teachers and nonlicensed employees.

At Saturday’s forum, educators and community members shared personal stories about the need for more educational funding. They spoke about their struggles to make ends meet in an economy with a rapidly increasing cost of living, of the difficulties of working in short-staffed schools with high-needs students, and of “tapped out” communities unwilling or unable to vote for property tax increases to make up for funding shortcomings.

Multiple regional school districts were represented, including Mancos, Cortez, Durango, Telluride, Ridgway and Bayfield.

Tigo Cruz, a preschool paraprofessional with Mancos School District Re-6, recounted his experiences working multiple jobs and sleeping in his car because he couldn’t afford housing.

“We need help now,” he told McLachlan and Coram at the forum’s conclusion.

Celeste Dunlop, a special education teacher in Durango, spoke about the wraparound services that schools provide their students, and of an overwhelming caseload. Right now, schools are not able to adequately meet the needs of their “students in crisis,” she said, many of whom need additional interventions and mental health supports that schools can’t provide right now.

Several speakers also felt that districts were forced to rely on grants to operate.

“Let’s just fund education,” said Mike Gass, the soon-retiring superintendent of the Telluride School District R-1.

The legislators offered their own perspectives before answering a series of questions from the audience.

McLachlan, a retired teacher who serves as chair of the House Education Committee, agreed with the crowd. She recalled her firsthand classroom experience seeing school funding decrease over the years, and emphasized her commitment to advocating for more educational funding and voting in line with that commitment.

She did have some perception-related concerns with SB89, though. She felt if a pot of money for education was created too soon, it could be difficult to gain support for higher teacher pay later.

“People are going to say – not true – but their perception is going to say, ‘Teachers are fine, nobody else has their own bank account,’” McLachlan said.

Instead, she said, they should focus first on eliminating the budget stabilization factor.

“I think let’s do this when we can get rid of the negative factor,” she said.

According to Mancos Superintendent Brian Hanson, if the budget stabilization factor was eliminated, his district could have a beginning salary of $48,000 annually for teachers and $16.50 per hour for classified staff.

Coram, who used to serve on the board for Montrose County School District Re-1J, said he was at the forum to listen.

“Our problem is not Republican-Democrat,” he said. “It’s urban and rural.”

Coram added too that as state legislators, he and Mclachlan could only do so much, since most of the budget is already accounted for or earmarked.

“The school board and county commissioner affect your lives far more than Barbara and I can,” he said.