A protest walkout walks back in

Students speak out against meager salaries for teachers

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— Although high school junior Darcy Heinert made two 20-foot signs in preparation for a schoolwide walkout, expecting to hold them aloft while marching down Lincoln Avenue in support of the school's teachers, she never got a chance to use them.

The students at Steamboat Springs High School, ready to storm the streets of Steamboat at 10 a.m. on Friday, were interrupted by an 11th-hour announcement to turn around and "walk-in" made by organizers JoJo Bucci and Maggie McElhinney a move praised by teachers, students and administrators alike as a more positive form of protest.

The protest, prompted by the firing of Campus Supervisor Brad Nelson two weeks ago and the 2.25 percent raise offered to district teachers this year, ended up focusing mostly on the teacher salary issue, though choruses of "We Want Brad" echoed throughout the auditorium during the speak-out.

Junior Sarah Leonard began the speak-out by expressing her anger at the meager raise her mother, who is a teacher in the district, received this year. Raises negotiated in November and December averaged 2.25 percent for teachers in the RE-2 school district, which amounted to about $800 in many cases.

A third-year teacher with a bachelor's degree, for instance, saw an increase in his or her salary from $25,419 to $26,166.

"That's not just insulting to the teachers," Leonard said, "it's insulting to the profession."

With District Superintendent Cyndy Simms and local school board member Paul Fisher in attendance, the students attempted, for the most part, to inform them of their concerns without necessarily blaming the two district representatives.

The amount of money received by the district depends heavily on the state, which imposes a finance formula that limits the amount of property taxes the district can collect. The school district received a 2.8 percent increase in funding this year over last year.

Opinions differ on how much wiggle room the district has within the limits of the finance formula and the half-percent of sales tax revenue it gets, though most of the teachers and students in attendance understood the difficulties the district faces in allocating revenue.

Nonetheless, the bottom line to most audience members who filled the school's auditorium was that teachers are having trouble making it in Steamboat with salaries that do not even keep up with inflation (as measured by the Denver-Boulder Consumer Price Index).

That problem, which forces some teachers to work second jobs, also takes away from the students, McElhinney said.

"How the teachers are paid affects our education," McElhinney said.

Teachers expressed their appreciation for the students' support.

"The students realize that low salaries are not getting and keeping good teachers," said John St. George, a learning resource teacher.

Other teachers noted that low salaries will make it difficult for the district to hire new teachers once the current ones retire.

"The main issue here I believe is an enormous number of teachers of my generation are about to retire, not just in Steamboat but throughout the country, and there will be an enormous number of vacancies in the near future," said Hispanic studies teacher Ken Janson, a self-described child of the '60s. "Given the salaries both at the beginning and end, I doubt this district is going to be able to get competent people in some fields."

Simms reiterated the point that the district did not receive a large increase in funding and said the students should look to the state to help solve the salary issue.

She offered to take at least one student down to Denver with her and school board members to urge the state legislature to increase funding to account for high costs-of-living.

Fisher, who called teacher salaries the No. 1 issue facing the district, said the school board will hold a full work session on the salary issue at its next meeting.

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