Denver (CNN)Inspired by teachers in other states, Colorado educators brought their demands for more funding to the state Capitol on Monday while others gathered in districts across the state -- and organizers say they are just getting started.
Colorado teachers rally for more funding
Hundreds of educators gathered outside lawmakers' offices in Denver, many of them dressed in red T-shirts from the #RedForEd campaign that started in Arizona. They waved signs touting Colorado's nationwide rank in average teacher salary -- 46 -- and chanted "this is what Democracy looks like."
High participation led the Englewood School District to close after more than 150 educators -- 70% of its workforce -- called in to take a personal day for the rally. Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said the group hopes more districts will close for its next day of action, April 27.
One teacher from Englewood, Jessica Tarkanian, brought her 7-year-old daughter to Monday's rally. She said she protested to "support our retirement, fund our schools, and make sure we get what we need for our kids."
A teacher at Cherrelyn Elementary School, Tarkanian said she recently moved in with another family to save money and make ends meet. She says she's been teaching for 10 years, but earns the same as a teacher with three years of experience.
"I'm not sure I can do it anymore," she said.
Inside the state Capitol, members of the Colorado Education Association met with lawmakers to register their concerns. The group says insufficient funding and teacher pay is making the job less attractive to college graduates. Consequently, teachers are leaving the profession early, leading to a shortage of fully qualified teachers.
The group ended the day happy with its progress and eager to keep up the momentum, Dallman said.
The state house finance committee introduced a number of amendments to a pension bill, including one to lower the retirement age. Right now, it's 58, but the bill sought to raise it to 65. The proposed amendment is a compromise at 60, Dallman said, one that teachers are amenable to. The bill is still in committee, but Dallman said it was a sign that lawmakers are willing to listen.
"Over 400 educators came to the Capitol today to call for increased funding for public education and a secure retirement -- and we are thrilled that legislators listened," Dallman said.
Englewood School District teacher Becky Moraja said she sees high turnover in her district. It's hard to retain teachers as soon as they become aware of the heavy workload and stagnant salaries, she said. "We want to keep those extraordinary teachers in Englewood and keep the opportunities for our students."
She and her husband, also a teacher, know the struggle firsthand, she said. They recently moved with their two sons into her mother's home to make ends meet, she said. "It was a financial move."
Colorado's educators have been energized by teacher walkouts and demonstrations in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, Dallman told CNN. Teachers in West Virginia won a 5% pay raise in March after a nine-day strike.
"Our members are energized and fed up by the constant year-over-year chronic underfunding of our public schools," Dallman said.
The CEA says Colorado educators' average pay has dropped by more than 17% when adjusting for inflation over the last 15 years. In 2016, Colorado ranked 46th in the country for average teachers' salary, according to a report by the National Education Association.
Additionally, Colorado effectively has underfunded its schools by $828 million, the CEA says, because the state hasn't kept up with a state constitutional mandate passed last decade to increase funds each year by at least the rate of inflation.
Raising taxes to make up the money isn't easy, because the state's 1992 taxpayer bill of rights demands that voters approve any tax hikes. In a recent survey, teachers reported spending an average of $656 yearly on school supplies and expenses for students, the CEA said.
Third grade teacher Libby Bucher said she referees and coaches sports on the side to make ends meet. She said she has so much debt she had to stop putting money in her retirement account and cancel her life insurance.
Yet the single mom says she has never thought of leaving teaching. "I don't look at teaching as a job, it's who I am."
Beyond the state capital, residents of Fort Collins joined educators in a walk-in outside Webber Middle School.
Laura Schachet is a media specialist at the school. She joined others in the demonstration, waving a sign that read, "We ❤️our students & want the CO legislature to fix this!"
"Our generous voters in Fort Collins have historically supported PSD, teachers and support staff. We are asking the State to do so for PSD and all CO districts," said Schachet, a teacher for 18 years.