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op-ed

Why Jeffco teachers are walking out

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In a recently published article in Education Week, Marc Tucker (CEO of the National Center on Education & the Economy) wrote, “Little wonder the teachers are striking. The only question is why it took them so long.”

Here in Jefferson County, and across Colorado (and the nation), educators and other staff members working in schools are calling for walk-outs and even outright labor strikes in protest of years of low education funding and proposed reforms to public employee pension systems.

During the years of the Great Recession, education budgets were slashed in Colorado as the economy shrunk – and so did tax collections. The pain of these cuts was clearly felt as districts struggled to serve communities and families while having to reduce the size of their organizations by almost 20 percent during this period.

Educator walkouts and strikes were not prevalent during this period. I believe most people working in our schools “got it” – that there was less money to go around due to the recession and we would need to make sacrifices like everyone else. So, cuts were made that led to larger class sizes, fewer supports, pay freezes or reductions, and fewer employee benefits.

However, once the economy started heating back up, turning into one of the longest periods of sustained economic growth in U.S. and Colorado history, funds have been slow to come back to our schools.

In the Centennial state, this is due in large part to a “one-way-ratchet” provision in the TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) amendment to the state Constitution. This provision requires the economy to shrink during times of economic downturn, but then slowly ratchet back up in times of economic prosperity.

In short, educators have seen the economy in Colorado go red hot, along with things like rising housing costs, but their paychecks have not returned to pre-recession levels compared to inflation.

The state manages its budget shortfall through a fiscal tool called the “negative factor.” It means that when school budgets are created, pre-recession funding numbers plus inflation are put in at the top of the ledger, and then sufficient funds are sucked back out further down the page to help balance the state budget.

Last year, members of the legislature felt that the term “negative factor” was, well … too negative. So they officially changed the name to the “budget stabilization” factor … or B.S. factor. You cannot make this stuff up, folks.

The B.S. factor stands as a measure of where Colorado’s schools are funded today compared to pre-recession levels. The cumulative impact of that ongoing cut since 2009 is $6.7 billion. Jeffco’s portion of this has been a cumulative $634 million, or about $76 million annually.

Sometimes these numbers are so big they are hard to put into context, so let me make an attempt.

The biggest cost factors in school budgets are how many people you have and how much you pay them. $76 million is enough for Jeffco to put 1,000 more teachers into our schools. Put another way, it is enough to give all of our current staff members a 13.5 percent pay raise. For our average teacher, that would be about a $7,100 annual raise – or about $600 a month more.

For a Jeffco teacher, $600 more a month is significant. It means the difference on being able to own a home, or buy a car, or save for your kid’s college.

The other reason educators are walking out relates to what they perceive as a threat to their pension system. Colorado PERA’s recent shortfalls are well-known and I believe most Colorado educators, retirees, and employers expected some degree of financial pain to come if we wanted PERA to be there for us when we retired and grew older.

What changed things for educators was when the conversation went from “how do we stabilize” PERA to “how do we dismantle” it. Educators work for years at modest compensation levels with the promise of having a stable and sufficient retirement there for the golden years. The prospect of losing that pension breaks the social contract under which our educators and staff entered the profession.

Credit is due to our current legislators in taking on these issues and providing some relief, at least in the preliminary deal-making happening at the capitol. Talk is that the legislature plans to reduce the B.S. factor by $150 million dollars next year. And, they plan on having the state cover the PERA budget shortfall which (over time) should stabilize that system.

I know some legislators are frustrated with the demands and advocacy from our educators about funding this year, when they feel they are doing what they can.

I think what they need to know is that it isn’t just about this year. It’s about nearly a decade of frustration from low pay, heavy workloads, doing less with less, making wicked trade-offs when it comes to services for our students, and being told help is not on the way or that there are other priorities.

In sum, our educators are saying they’ve had it – and something has got to change.

Jason Glass is the superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools.

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