Hundreds of Colorado teachers left their classrooms Monday morning and descended on the state Capitol to demand that lawmakers protect public pensions and put millions of dollars more into K-12 education each year.
"You left me no choice. I have to use my teacher voice," they chanted as they looped around the Statehouse before the House and Senate gaveled in at 10 a.m.
House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver and state Reps. Dave Young of Greeley and Alec Garnett of Denver, strong advocates of public education, met them on the sidewalk and gave high-fives.
Teachers said they took a personal day off to politick in Denver.
"My message is: We shouldn't fund tax cuts for the wealthy with the retirement of working people," said Laura Codt, who teaches first, second and third grades at St. Vrain Community Montessori School in Longmont.
The House Finance Committee was to hear Senate Bill 200, which seeks to bridge a shortfall of $32 billion or more in the state pension plan. Retirees and state and local workers could pay the brunt of that cost, while the Senate proposal prevents employers from paying in more.
The bill passed the Republican-held Senate on a 19-16 vote March 27 after a days-long debate.
It is expected to be amended in the House, where Democrats have a majority. A compromise could be worked out by a conference committee. If so, both chambers would have to agree before the session adjourns May 9.
"It's time to fund schools the way they need to be funded," said Anne Robison, a retired teacher from Montrose schools on the Western Slope. "We've gone too far the other way, and if we don't pay for schools, we're going to be in trouble."
Lynnette Acosta, a 30-year educator who teaches kindergarten through third-graders at Ellis Elementary School in Denver, was surrounded by younger colleagues marching along Lincoln Street.
"I'm fighting for the present and the future for all our teachers and students," she said.
The House Education Committee was to discuss House Bill 1379, the annual school finance act, Monday afternoon.
The bill is expected to put $150 million more this year toward the shortfall between the amount the state puts into K-12 education and the amount it was supposed to provide under Amendment 23, written into the state constitution in 2000.
Advocates want $150 million locked into the budget every year to pay down that so-called negative factor.
Monday's march was organized by the Colorado Education Association, the teachers' union.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, CEA vice president, said teachers see tax breaks handed out to corporations and see Colorado's booming economy, but little extra money goes to education.
"That does add up for our schools," she said.
Some Colorado districts showed solidarity by wearing "red for public ed" and held events at their schools to raise awareness of education funding.
A rally was planned on the Capitol steps at 4:30 p.m. Monday.
"We put it out there for people who can come after school to attend, but honestly we've gotten responses from many of our educators that they'll be going to their second job after school," Baca-Oehlert said. "Seriously, they won't be able to attend the rally, because they can't afford to."