Teachers in Pueblo are prepared to join a national movement of educator activism and walk out of their classrooms later this year if their demand for a 2 percent raise isn’t met.
Members of the Pueblo Education Association, the southern Colorado town’s teachers union, voted last week to authorize a strike after the local school board rejected a third party recommendation that the district provide the cost-of-living pay increase the teachers were seeking during this year’s contract negotiations.
As part of its rationale for rejecting teacher raises, the board cited other budget priorities, a desire to protect funding reserves, and raises given to most teachers in the past two years. The average teacher salary this year in Pueblo is $47,617, according to state data.
The board’s vote came after the district recently decided to go to a four-day week, in part as a cost-saving measure.
The extraordinary vote — the last teacher strike in Colorado occurred in 1994 — took place as teachers across the country have left their classrooms over demands for better salaries and more school funding. So far, teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma have staged weeklong strikes. Arizona teachers are also preparing to leave their lesson plans behind.
“I think both movements, both nationally and locally, show that teachers have had enough,” Suzanne Etheridge, the Pueblo teachers union president said. “Teachers are walking into classrooms that are not funded.”
For the moment, Pueblo teachers are still in their classrooms. A strike can’t take place until after the state decides in early May whether it will step in to broker a deal.
Etheridge, in an interview with Chalkbeat, discussed the circumstances that led teachers in the 16,000-student school district to take such “drastic” action, how the national climate is fueling their effort, and how the looming strike could be resolved.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (Click here to read the district’s statement on the union’s vote to strike.)
Negotiations between the union and the district have been tense before. What’s different this time? Why did you go all the way to taking a vote for a strike?
I think what’s different this time is the true lack of openness during this round of bargaining. Although the district has accused us of never coming off our demand for 2.8 percent, which was our initial request, they also stuck to zero the whole entire time. There were also some issues, some discussions we should have had but never happened. We were invited to one budget summit that consisted of a sit-and-listen to somebody lecture the school board. So, it was just the real lack of openness and transparency through this process.
What finally tipped the balance was when the school board took its vote. Some of the comments made really angered our teachers. It felt like we were being publicly lectured asking for a cost-of-living increase. One of our board members went on about the value of younger teachers versus more experienced teachers, when we’re all valuable. There should be none of those lines drawn. We felt like some of the comments were very caustic in nature. I watched teachers’ faces at that board meeting. I watched the disappointment. I watched the hurt. I watched the anger. Our members after that were very, very upset.
You said in another interview that this wasn’t just about money, but about respect. How have Pueblo teachers been disrespected?
Educator voices are not part of the decision-making in our schools right now. At one of our schools, which is in turnaround status, they just had their lesson plan format changed for the sixth time this year. It’s the middle of April! We have very little input at the district level. We have made three open records request for the district’s staffing model for next year. And still, we’re just told no, that it’s still fluid. When they ask questions, they’re very often met with not only resistance, but are sometimes punished. It’s those sorts of things that have just added up for teachers.
There’s a five-member board. Two of the members were endorsed by the union. How did your relationship with the board break down?
The board members who voted against the fact finder report aren’t hearing teachers. What we’re trying to tell them is that a budget is about choices. And we don’t agree with some of the choices they’re making right now. One of the choices was that the instructional budget was cut, but business services had their budget increased, so did human resources. That’s a choice. The district is spending a lot of money on a law firm out of Boulder. That’s a choice. Administrators received a cost-of-living increase this year, teachers are not. More importantly our paraprofessionals have not. It’s those kind of choices we’re looking at in our budget analysis and saying, “Wait a minute.” We’ve also found money where we believe the district is over-budgeting and has some money available.
The school board president, Barb Clementi, a former teacher whom you did endorse, wrote in The Pueblo Chieftain about her vote against giving teachers a raise: “There is no question that our employees deserve more, and yet we are in a grim financial situation. Since three educators were elected to the board, teachers, paraprofessionals and other educators have seen two raises and three step increases in pay. We are struggling to continue to fund those increases in the coming budget and will undoubtedly see cuts to staff and programs in order to do so. It is fiscally irresponsible to dig an even deeper financial hole by raiding our reserves, which are meant to cover one-time emergency expenses, or by further cutting staff and programs.” I know you’re suggesting that the district doesn’t need to use reserves to pay for these raises, but more broadly, why is she wrong? Is it just possible that it’s just not the teachers’ turn for a raise? Was a guarantee of a raise next year never part of the conversation?
No, it was not. At least not until now, after all this has got rolling. We still have next year’s contract hanging out there. It’s been mentioned in some informal conversations, “Well, there’s next year.” The problem is, those raises, the past two years only came after this same process — long, drawn-out negotiations. Steps (or years of tenure) are not a raise for all of our employees. There are some places people are frozen. What the district also fails to recognize, is that in all of its years, it’s never once been on the state’s watchlist for fiscal risk. They’ve always been very healthy financially. They’ve maintained stable ground. We’ve tracked reserves through the years, and this is the first year you can see a little bit of a decrease. But that’s because the district made a choice to move some money to address facility issues, which we also understand. The other thing they neglect to mention is that the district continues to get more money from the state despite declining enrollment. They are getting additional money, and they’re set to get more money. School finance is looking a little better in Colorado for next year.
Should teachers expect to get raises every year?
I think there are ways that we need to start looking at our traditional salary scales. That should be something on the table at a future point. Do I think some of the structures of our salary schedules are a little outdated? Yes. I think there are ways we can change that to make the money a little bit better. What people also need to understand is that schools are funded by the state based on cost of living. So, I think it’s reasonable for there to be something. Does it need to be a 10 percent raise? Not necessarily, because we are dependant on state funding.
Teachers, in a lot of cases, have the same level of education as attorneys, physicians assistants, nurses. And those people can expect raises. They have a high level of education and so do our teachers. Teachers have been deprofessionalized by the lack of funding, by the lack of raises. Do I think teachers deserve to come into a profession and take care of their own families, to pay off their own students loans? Absolutely.
We’re at a moment of national unrest and action by teachers. Do you think your members are feeling embolden by that? Would your members have voted to strike if it there wasn’t this national conversation?
I think we’d still be heading here, even without the momentum. But do I think the national momentum has helped? Absolutely. I think both movements, both nationally and locally, show that teachers have had enough. Teachers are walking into classrooms that are not funded. We have teachers who (can only make) 100 copies a month from the building copier. And yet, they see 125 to 150 students a day. That’s the kind of thing teachers are tired of. My daughter-in-law, she’s a teacher, the decorations in her classroom are bought with her own money. Teachers for the last five to seven years have been put in the situation of having to buy basic supplies such as paper and pencils because schools have been so underfunded. It’s all part of the same issue. It’s about respect. No other professional would be asked to buy their supplies like teachers do.
Pueblo is the only urban school district in the state to not have voter approval for additional local funding for its schools. What do voters in Pueblo and Colorado need to know about how the financial situation is contributing to this moment?
Colorado has fallen further and further behind in school funding. Current estimates suggest we’re either 46th or 48th in funding schools. Which is really tragic considering our economy — at least in the northern part of the state — has been healthier than it’s ever been.
The other piece of this, for districts like ours that have not passed a tax increase: We’ve hurt ourselves. School districts have had to pass local tax increases to keep the cash flow coming in to do things like keep up facilities, supplies, and technology.
We desperately need one. We need a long-term, well-thought-out plan for a mill levy override and perhaps a bond issue to be able to get our schools up to date. There was supposed to be a committee to get this started. And we were supposed to be part of that committee. But it hasn’t happened.
Getting back to the potential strike, teachers at a local middle school recently staged a “sickout.” One parent responded: “If the teachers want to strike, fine: strike like the steelworkers strike where they don’t get paid a damn dime. But for them to use sick time and screw over all these kids, who’re aren’t in school today because of that? That’s wrong. And they expect the community to take them seriously?” What do you say to that parent? Are you at all concerned that this could backfire, are you worried that the district could just drop the collective bargaining all together?
That’s always a concern. That’s something we hope doesn’t happen. The association did not plan what happened at Corwin International Magnet School. I didn’t even know about it. I read it on Facebook and in the news like everyone else.
What I would say to that parent is that we’re not walking out to harm our students. In reality, we’re planning a strike to help our students. One of things that this district struggles with is high teacher turnover. It’s one of the highest rates in the state. We have positions filled this year by teachers who have come out of retirement for limited contracts. We have teachers in classrooms on alternative licenses. Finding a special education teacher in the city of Pueblo is like finding a needle in a haystack. We believe that if we can get back to work openly, honestly, and collaboratively with the school district, where we can compete salarywise with districts surrounding us, then we can keep highly qualified teachers in our classroom. That’s what we’re after. Our goal is not to harm students. But we feel like to benefit our students, we have to take drastic opinions right now.
What is the long-term solution, so a strike can be avoided and you’re not here next year?
We have made a conscious decision: We feel a 2 percent raise is fair. It’s off of our initial proposal by almost a full percent. We’d like to be able to come back to the table with some sort of real labor-management partnership collaboration agreement so we’re not here again. It’s going to take some real work. It might even take some outside help to repair our relationship. However, when we do come to the table again, I’d like to see come forward a real partnership agreement. Not one that is just written on paper.
What’s the nationwide or state solution to this moment of educator unrest?
Funding formulas across states need to be changed. States need to take a long hard look at how they fund schools. I believe Colorado’s is archaic. Will money solve everything? No. But it’s a big piece of it. We also have to get teachers to the table when education decisions have been made.