A new hope?

Colorado school funding advocates take early steps toward possible 2018 ballot measure

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School works on a project in class.

Stung that a proposed 2016 ballot initiative that would have sent millions of dollars to Colorado classrooms was abandoned, a coalition of school funding advocates is quietly meeting to consider crafting a different package for the 2018 election.

Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for school funding, has pulled together education leaders and community organizations to discuss the issue. How big the ask might be and details such as potential ballot language are unknown because the group’s work has just begun, said Lisa Weil, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“We have to prepare the ground for something to be successful,” Weil said. “This work is to make sure we don’t miss an opportunity.”

The working group is made up of representatives from organizations such as the Colorado PTA and the Colorado Rural Alliance. Faith leaders and organizations that advocate for people of color and those with disabilities also are participating.

Weil declined to identify the organizations but said “we have to have a broad organization thinking about this.”

For any push to be successful, Weil said, it will take advocates talking to voters in all corners of the state, not just “television ads and slick mailers.”

Earlier this year, Weil’s group and many others in the education community rallied behind a proposal to ask voters to approve additional taxes to pay for education, roads, mental health and services for seniors. But organizers suspended gathering petitions over the summer, citing concerns that they couldn’t raise enough money for the campaign.

Colorado voters were last asked to pump money into public schools statewide in 2013, with Amendment 66. The constitutional amendment, backed by more than $11 million in campaign donations, would have added about a billion dollars to the state’s school system and triggered a new formula for how the state funds schools. The measure was defeated by 30 percentage points.

Nine of the state’s 11 most populous counties voted no on the amendment. Voters in Boulder and Denver — reliably liberal and tax-friendly counties — barely approved the increase.

Leaders at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank that led the charge against Amendment 66, said history is on their side when it comes major tax increases.

“People are more interested in how money gets spent, not just how much,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst for the institute. “I would be interested in having a discussion about how we allocate the huge amount of money we put into K-12 education before we start talking about raising taxes.”

Colorado, a low-tax state with constitutionally restricted spending caps, often falls at the bottom of lists that rank how much states spend on schools.

Those who want the state to spend more money often point to the so-called “negative factor” as proof that the state is shortchanging schools.

The negative factor is the difference between how much the state should fund its schools as defined by the constitution and what it actually provides based on available revenue. Currently, it amounts to about $830 million.

“Our current funding system is not up to the task we’re asking of it, that we should ask for it,” Weil said.

Despite projections that show the shortfall growing next year, most schools would get slightly more money than last year if the General Assembly approves Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal.

Weil said she still has hope that the governor and lawmakers will come up with a long-term solution.

“What the legislature might do, what can they do, that’s part of the conversation” about whether to press forward with another ballot initiative, Weil said.

Local school districts, under the impression that the state will never make up the shortfall, have increasingly asked local voters to approve smaller tax increases — either bonds for capital needs or mill levy overrides to support education programs or increase teacher salaries.

This year saw a record number of districts — including those in Denver, Aurora and Greeley, and Jefferson and Adams counties — ask for local tax increases. Voters approved about two-thirds of them.

Nora Brown, secretary for the Colorado PTA and a member of the group weighing a 2018 ballot measure, said educating voters about how the schools are funded and what restrictions the state has will be one of the group’s biggest challenges.

“I think people’s minds are open to the discussion,” she said. “The challenge will be to educate and make this relevant to others to get involved and engaged in the conversation.”

Another potential test to the group’s effort could be the passage of Amendment 71, which makes it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution.

If the group proceeds with a constitutional amendment, it will be required to collect signatures from each of the state’s 35 senate districts. If any amendment makes the ballot, 55 percent of voters must approve of the ballot language for it to become law.

The group could also submit a proposition to the voters, which would create new state law without changing the state’s constitution. Unlike voter-approved amendments, state lawmakers can easily repeal propositions through legislation.

“It’s way too early to say whether this is going to be an amendment or a proposition,” Weil said. “But in terms of talking preparation, Amendment 71 means we have to be prepared more broadly.”

working on the weekend

Teacher by day, waitress by night: Colorado teachers work second jobs to make ends meet

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Three days a week, Denver teacher Kendall Finch leaves her first-grade classroom after the final bell and heads to her second job at a local gym, where she works the front desk until 7 p.m.

Soon, the first-year teacher will add another job on the weekend — helping coordinate beer festivals and other events.

For Finch, the second and third jobs are a necessity — covering groceries, her gym membership and helping repay the $20,000 loan she took out last year to make ends meet during her unpaid teaching internship.

The 27-year-old isn’t alone in working extra jobs on top of teaching full-time. Many teachers nationwide take on second jobs outside the school system — 16 percent, according to a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress. The report only looked at data for one year.

The proportion is even higher in Colorado — about 22 percent — putting it among the top states where teachers take on extra employment. They’re bartenders, babysitters, deejays, tutors, cashiers and waitresses, to name a few.

The prevalence of teachers with second jobs is one symptom of larger, systemic problems — the steady erosion of teacher pay, Colorado’s perennial school funding crunch and skyrocketing housing costs. But some teachers and observers say it’s also a problem in its own right, sapping teachers’ energy, diverting their focus from the classroom and contributing to decisions to leave the profession altogether.

In interviews with more than a half-dozen Colorado teachers who have second and sometimes third jobs during the school year, the consensus was that teaching alone doesn’t pay the bills.

Teachers in rural, suburban and urban districts — those with children and those without — all voiced concerns about meeting their financial obligations. They cited the cost of housing, health care and student loans as their biggest burdens. Several described the scramble from teaching jobs to second jobs as draining and distracting.

One Jefferson County teacher, a father of three who works as a bike mechanic and property manager on the side, half-joked that he drinks ten cups of coffee a day.

Abby Cillo, a second-grade teacher at Fletcher Community School in Aurora, said her after-school jobs tutoring and nannying add another layer of logistics to her day.

“It’s one more thing for me to think about and plan for and do,” she said.

Some experts say it’s uncommon for such a large percentage of educated workers in a single profession to have second jobs.

“It’s really an important marker that we’re not treating teachers like the professionals they are,” said Lisette Partelow, director of teacher policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

“I’ve never met a doctor who had a side gig as a waiter or waitress,” she said.

The teacher pay gap

Experts and teachers alike say lagging salaries are at least partly to blame for the prevalence of second jobs among teachers.

Nationally, teachers earn about 17 percent less than similarly educated professionals, according to a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute. Even when teachers’ benefits — typically more generous than other workers — are added to the equation, teachers receive 11 percent less in total compensation.

Digging into Colorado data, the statistics become gloomier.

In a state-by-state ranking of average 2014-15 teacher salaries compiled by the nation’s largest teachers union, Colorado ranked 34th. Its average salary of nearly $50,000 was well below the national average of more than $57,000.

In addition, the Economic Policy Institute report revealed that Colorado teachers earn about 65 percent of what similarly educated professionals earn here.

“I was a little bit shocked that Colorado was so far behind,” said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of the report.

She noted that some other states with comparable numbers, such as Alabama and Virginia, have laws granting workers the right to avoid labor union membership or dues as a condition of employment. Those states have histories of low public sector wages.

In Colorado, school budgets and teacher pay in many districts have been impacted by a complicated web of constitutional amendments and laws that contribute to the state frequently ranking near the bottom in per-pupil funding.

Teaching wasn’t always like this. Back in 1994, teachers nationally only made a bit less than other professionals, and when you figured in benefits, there was almost no difference in compensation. But since then, what researchers call the “wage penalty” has grown significantly for teachers while their “benefits advantage” has not grown enough to offset it.

Part of the reason for this trend was huge wage growth for non-teacher college graduates between 1979 and 2002. Teachers didn’t enjoy the same surge because they work based on long-term contracts and because public sector wages don’t go up or down as dramatically as private sector wages do, researchers say.

Cillo, whose mother was a teacher and whose father was a principal, is keenly aware of the changing financial landscape for educators.

During her growing-up years, she said, “We weren’t super-rich, but we definitely didn’t want for things.”

“Teachers used to be middle class.”

This month, Cillo started a master’s degree program in organizational leadership.

“As much as I love teaching … I need to be prepared for something other than education,” she said.

Going solo

During the week, Nikki Fitterer, 40, is a math teacher at Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Jefferson County. On the weekends, she spends 10 hours serving sandwiches, tacos and stews from a local food truck.

She got the extra job several months ago — the first time in her 17-year teaching career she felt the need for extra income. One factor was the rising cost of living, she said. Another was the medical bills that piled up after she had back surgery last spring. Even with her $69,000 salary, Fitterer, who has a master’s degree, couldn’t keep up.

Things were different when she first started teaching. At the time, wages for female teachers were more comparable to those of other female college graduates — lagging by only about 4 percent. Today, female teachers nationally make about 14 percent less than similarly educated women, according to the Economic Policy Institute report. (The gap is even worse for male teachers.)

And while Fitterer was married when she became a teacher, she has since divorced.

“I’m a single person. I don’t have a second income in my home,” she said.

Other teachers echoed the sentiment.

Finch, the first-grade teacher from Denver, is single right now, too. She makes $39,000 a year and pays $850 a month to share an apartment with two roommates. She doesn’t see an end to working extra jobs unless she finds a partner to help shoulder the burden. But contemplating that kind of safety net feels anti-feminist, she said.

“I want to be self-sufficient,” she said. “But I’m not sure that can necessarily be a reality unless I have other jobs.”

Community conversations

It’s difficult to broach the topics of eroding pay and second jobs, without also touching on how the public views teachers.

“I think the compensation issue is intertwined with the status issue,” said Partelow, of the Center for American Progress.

Several teachers interviewed said while they often hear flattering comments about their noble career paths and the good they do, they feel the broader world sees them in a different light — ensconced in cushy jobs and undeserving of higher pay.

For some Jefferson County teachers, voters’ recent rejection of two school district tax measures was a stinging reminder of that reality.

Troy Rivera, a teacher at a Greeley charter school who also teaches at a local community college, said a friend of his likes to say, “Oh, you’re a teacher you’ve got it made.”

But his friend, a car salesman, doesn’t see him staying home to grade papers and create lesson plans on school holidays or taking classes to get recertified in the summer.

“There’s a lot more to the job than people think,” Rivera said.

In fact, most teachers interviewed for this story reported working 50-60 hours a week for their teaching job. Second and third jobs took about 10-15 hours a week.

What kind of salary bumps would make it possible for teachers to jettison their extra jobs? Answers vary. A couple teachers said $10,000 a year. One said $20,000. Rivera said while his side job keeps him from living paycheck-to paycheck, he believes his $51,000 salary is fair.

Caitlin Snarr, a first-grade teacher at Pagosa Springs Elementary School in southwest Colorado, took a diplomatic approach to the question.

“We could be paid a little bit more,” she said. Later in the conversation, she added, “I would never want to come across as whining.”

Snarr, a fourth-year teacher, earns $35,500 a year through her teaching job, plus enough to cover her car payment by running the school’s afternoon tutoring program four days a week.

“Down the road eventually it would be nice not to have to have a second job,” said Snarr, who has a daughter in third grade and a baby on the way.

Getting there, at least by way of a locally generated salary increase, will take community conversations about the feasibility of ballot initiatives like a mill levy override or a sales tax measure.

Snarr wants to be part of those conversations, driving the point home that extra school revenue — whether it’s for teacher salaries or anything else — “goes back to having really great opportunities for our kids.”

money matters

Proposal to ask voters to overhaul property tax rate to fund schools still alive — for now

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students move about a classroom at the Denver Green School.

Despite skepticism from Republican lawmakers who help write the state’s budget, a proposal to ask voters to set a uniform tax on personal property to increase school funding is still alive.

The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, agreed Tuesday to keep the proposal on its list of possible legislation for this session. For a bill to be sponsored by the committee, it must have unanimous support.

Currently, school districts have little power over how much local tax revenue they can collect. Some districts are fully funded by their local property taxes, while others heavily depend on the state. If voters went along with the request, schools could see by one estimate a $300 million increase in revenue.

Sen. Kent Lambert, a Manitou Springs Republican and chairman of the committee, said he didn’t believe there would be enough votes in either chamber to put the proposal on a future ballot. For lawmakers to refer a question to voters, two-thirds of both chambers must support it.

Lambert said he believed, at the least, the committee and its staff could produce more information to inform the broader school funding debate.

“It’s an important element of it,” he said, referring to rethinking how local tax dollars are used to fund the state’s schools. “But it isn’t the whole solution.”

Supporters of the idea, especially Reps. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, believe the state’s current formula to fund schools is unfair.

“We’re funding some kids at $25,000 and some at $7,000,” Rankin said. “That’s just not right.”

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican, said he worries low-income families in wealthier parts of the state could see their property taxes jump under the proposed change.

“I have a deep concern that as we set a system to address one inequity over here, we’ll create another one over there,” he said.

Colorado’s tax and school funding policies are complicated. A mix of constitutional amendments approved by voters and other legislation leaves lawmakers with few options to change how much money schools receive.

The state is often criticized for ranking near the bottom in state funding for students. This year, many observers forecast the state’s education funding shortfall, which sits about about $830 million, will jump to about $1 billion.

Rethinking the way the state funds its schools emerged as a central issue in speeches from leaders of both political parties and Gov. John Hickenlooper in the session’s opening week.