The rally has begun. More schools close their doors tomorrow as teachers take to the state Capitol.

A rally at the state Capitol on Thursday. Photo by John Herrick

Teachers dressed in red shirts circled the state Capitol this afternoon, demanding more money for K-12 education and a secure retirement pension. This was day one of a two-part rally, and tomorrow, thousands of teachers across the state are expected to take to the statehouse again.

Cars buzzing by honked their support for teachers as they chanted to tunes played on the saxophone and trombone or the to cue of a speakerphone. They raised posters and fists as they marched for hours, capping off the rally at the west steps where they sang a modified Tracy Chapman song: “Don’t you know you’re talking about a revolution. It sounds like educators.”

The “Red for Ed” public education rally comes after protests in Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia. On Thursday, teachers in Arizona also took the streets of the state capitol. On Friday, about two dozen school districts will cancel class as teachers make their way to the gold-domed statehouse in Denver. On Thursday, the teachers from Douglas and Jefferson County school districts took the day off from work for the rally, and many students and children also tagged along.  

“It was take your child to work day. This is where my work is today,” said Mark Lied, a special education teacher Weber Elementary School in Arvada, who brought along his daughter, Kaitlyn, an eighth-grade student who sat on his shoulders during a march around the statehouse.

Lied came to the Capitol because he said lawmakers are messing with his retirement savings — a perk of teaching that prompted him to switch careers.

In the final weeks, lawmakers will grapple with how to get the state’s public pension plan on a financially sustainable footing. To do so, Senate Republicans — and Gov. John Hickenlooper — are asking that workers pitch in an additional three percent out of their paychecks. For a teacher making the average salary of about $46,000, that would be an additional annual contribution of $1,380. 

So far there’s agreement to set aside in the budget $225 million in taxpayer dollars help out. They have also agreed to cut benefits for retirees, at least in the short term.

Democrats are not asking workers to contribute any more of their pay as part of their plan. But without teachers pitching in, there may not be enough money to close an estimated $32 billion unfunded debt to retirees, Republicans say.

“You really need to have everyone participate,” said Jack Tate, a Republican from Centennial, who is the lead sponsor on a reform bill in the Senate.

When it comes to additional funding, lawmakers say the time has passed. State budget writers already approved a $28.9 billion state budget that sets aside an additional $150 million to help pay down the state’s debt to schools, known as the budget stabilization factor, which is currently at about $822 million. It also includes $30 million for rural schools and $35 million for school safety measures, though some of this amount comes from money already reserved for education spending.

According to a 2018 Education Week report, Colorado ranks 40th in school finance. And the National Education Association’s annual report ranked Colorado 46th in the country for teacher pay; the average annual salary was 46,155 in 2016, about $12,000 below the average salary. In Colorado, about half the state’s school districts operate four days a week to save money.

That’s why Helen Patz, a Spanish teacher from the Clear Creek School District, came to the Capitol on Thursday. She said poor pay is prompting teachers to leave the profession — something she herself has considered.

“As the cost of living increases, our pay doesn’t keep up,” Patz said

Some teachers say they are frustrated that lawmakers won’t commit any more money this year.

“I think we need lawmakers who are going to make it a priority and find a way,” said Eirian Boyd, a language arts teacher at Ranch View Middle School.

Teachers salaries are set by local school boards, lawmakers often point out. And to raise taxes to shore up more money for education funding, voters will need to go to the ballot, as required under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in the state Constitution, or seek to reform TABOR itself so that excess revenue can go to schools instead of being returned to residents through refunds. Otherwise, education funding will continue to compete with other state spending priorities, like roads and transportation projects this year.

Republicans Sen. Bob Gardner and Rep. Paul Lundeen introduced a bill that would fine or jail teachers and teacher associations for striking. The bill is up for a committee vote in the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee Monday afternoon.

Photo: Teachers and students rally at the state Capitol on Thursday. Photo by John Herrick