By Mark Ackerman
STERLING, Colo. (CBS4) – This week teachers from across Colorado are walking out of school and rallying at the state Capitol to protest a lack of school funding.
In the northeast corner of the state, 124 miles away, Samantha Fennell teaches kindergarten at Ayres Elementary School in Sterling, where teachers earn 26 percent below the state average.
"I wanted the small town feel," said Fennell, who moved from the Front Range to the Eastern Plains.
On the day CBS4 visited, she was teaching her 21 students how to read.
"I love working with kids," she said. "Grown-ups can get a little iffy sometimes."
After four years of teaching in the RE-1 Valley School District, Fennell earns $31,229. She hasn't received a raise since she was hired.
"The first two years it was kind of disheartening," she said, "It was hard to keep trucking through."
Teachers generally don't get promotions. Instead, they build their salaries little-by-little, one step at a time.
A rookie teacher in the RE-1 Valley school district in Sterling makes $29,793. After 10 steps, of about $700 each, she can expect to make $36,256. In most school districts, a step equals a year. But, Fennell has been locked in at Step 3 since she started.
"The dream would be to have children and raise them here in Sterling, where I love to teach," she said. "But, the reality right now I can't. There is no way I can afford it."
With student loans of about $25,000 lumped on top, even in Sterling, it's tough to make it work.
"Our cost of living is similar to the Front Range. I can't afford to buy a house or invest in my community," she said.
Fennell takes on additional responsibilities to make more money including tutoring and summer school. She says some teachers in Sterling are waiting tables after work, or moonlighting as janitors.
RE-1 Valley Superintendent Jan DeLay says something needs to change.
"I go to Home Depot and one of my math teachers is helping me on a Saturday," she said. "He's there because he's working there."
The district has gone to a four-day week to cut down on bus and facility costs. The low salaries also lead to teacher turnover and vacancies. Long-term subs without teaching degrees are used to plug holes when a more qualified teacher can't be found. Sterling voters shot down tax increases two years in a row.
"The inequity of compensation for these teachers is just wrong," she said. "The quality of a child's education in the State of Colorado should not depend on where they live."
Yet somehow amidst the cuts, RE-1 Valley is making progress on the Colorado Department of Education's school district performance framework. In a town where many parents don't have a college degree, kids are going to college and succeeding.
Instead of protesting at the Capitol with their colleagues from around the State Friday, teachers in Sterling will walk out of school and protest locally at the Logan County courthouse. They plan to circulate petitions asking citizens to put a statewide initiative on the ballot to raise taxes for school funding.
Lee Fetters, who teaches middle school English Teacher, is leading the effort.
"I would like them to know that this isn't an us versus them, "Fetters said. "We are in Colorado, we are all in this together."
Fennell said she wants her contribution to be valued.
"I take my job very seriously," Fennell said. "It's a kick in the face when it is not seen as important as somebody else's job."
Despite her pay freeze, she spends between $500 and $800 every year on school supplies, doing anything to give her students an advantage.
"It's a big deal to be helping raise someone else's children and educating them," she said.
Friday night at 10 p.m. CBS4 will take you to the Boulder Valley School District, which pays teachers the most in Colorado -- roughly double what teachers are making in Sterling.
Click here to see an interactive map to with data on how teachers are paid where you live.
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