Many Denver educators pay a heavy price in delayed dreams, reduced health care and lowered standards of living to stay in district
Every profession comes with its own pitfalls. But few careers require as much dedication, perseverance and sheer sacrifice as choosing to serve as a teacher in the Denver Public School district. With low and often erratic salaries, lack of essential resources in many schools and an exploding cost of living in Denver, DPS teachers face uncertainty year after year, all while working tirelessly to provide a superior education to students.
With all this in mind, we spoke to some DPS educators to find out: What does it cost to be a DPS teacher?
“I think there are many things I’ve gone without because of my compensation as a DPS teacher,” said Pablo Benitez, a history teacher at Stedman Elementary. “I have been employed by DPS for six years and half of those years I opted out of insurance so I could receive the additional monetary payment of roughly $425 per month.”
A married father of two, Benitez is also a diabetic. So forgoing health insurance is quite a gamble, he said. Unfortunately, it’s a gamble he has lost on occasion and suffered the health consequences. Still, Benitez has gone without insurance for three of the past six years, potentially impacting his future health. He needs the extra money to care for his growing family, he said.
“It is really hard to get by and live with current teacher salaries,” he said. “I actually have to do without many things in life because I chose to live as a DPS teacher. It’s unfortunate because I love what I do and what I do is important.”
Teachers all agreed that life’s basic essentials become more difficult to manage under the strain of a DPS salary. And when the basics are hard to attain, dreams become nearly impossible.
“I have delayed going to grad school,” said Kahlea Qualls, a music teacher at Knapp Elementary. “If DPS offered a more stable, larger base salary, this would enable me to fulfill my dream of earning a graduate degree in order to enhance my knowledge of music education. This would allow me to grow as an educator and learn new materials that I could then bring back to my students in DPS.”
In essence, Kahlea’s delayed dream is a lost opportunity for DPS students. “(Additional education) would also allow me to move up in DPS as an educator with a higher degree. All in all, I desire to teach and reach every child that comes my way, and if DPS offers a larger base salary, I could accomplish this goal.”
In Denver’s challenging economy and housing market, home ownership has become a fairy tale for many DPS teachers. There is simply no way most teachers can manage month-to-month expenses while pocketing away enough money to build a down payment for a mortgage.
“Buying a home is the main thing that I have delayed due to my DPS pay,” said William Anderson, a history teacher at Manual High School. “And I could argue I am delaying having children as well.
“You know, the little things,” he joked.
Pablo Benitez is in the same housing boat as Anderson, he said. He currently rents an apartment for his family and would love to buy a home in a good neighborhood to raise his kids. But without a higher, more dependable salary, the outlook for home ownership does not look promising.
“I have had to forgo on saving more for retirement, too,” he said. “This is really what I am concerned about too because not saving enough now is going to hurt so much more in the future. The more I can save now the better I will be. I think a lot of teachers are facing this situation as well.”
So what would a higher and more consistent salary mean for DPS teachers? And for DPS students?
“Without these financial stressors, all aspects of my job would improve,” Anderson said. “I would not have to work so hard outside of school to earn extra money. I would be able to plan my own life better – which would allow me to plan my professional life better.”
Anderson said with a higher salary, he would be healthier. Like Benitez, Anderson has neglected his health due to the costs of health insurance and medical treatments. And he’s been forced to teach while he was ill because he couldn’t afford treatment.
“With better pay, I would be healthier and would not have to miss as many days due illness or having to work while sick,” he said. “This is not rocket science.”
What’s most important, all teachers agreed, is that better salaries for DPS teachers would result in happier, less stressed teachers and a better education for students. Teachers are already dedicated to their students and spend hundreds of their own dollars improving their classrooms. This would only multiply when teachers felt more appreciated and had more money to invest in their classes.
“If I earned more, I would probably spend more,” Benitez said. “This year I have spent nearly $1,700 on my classroom to improve the aesthetics of the room and to make it an inviting and warm space.”
In the end, a more fair and reasonable salary for DPS teachers would allow Denver educators the opportunity to plan their lives and build their careers in the city and district they love.
“If I had a bigger salary I could probably buy an entry level starter home in a nice area,” Benitez said. “I would have health insurance. I could see the doctor when I get sick – which is often when you work with little children. And I could better save and fund my retirement.”
And if so enabled by a better salary, Benitez (and every other DPS teacher) would be able to provide a more stable education for Denver students.
It’s not rocket science.
The final Compensation Bargaining session is scheduled for Wednesday, March 14 beginning at 8:45 a.m. at 1617 S. Acoma St. in Denver.