DENVER — For 14 months, teachers in Denver have been negotiating with Denver Public Schools for more pay.
On Saturday, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said talks had broken off and they’ll walk on Monday.
Yes, it’s about money, many have said. But it’s also about the uncertainty of living paycheck to paycheck.
It’s about the necessity of taking on a second or third job. It’s about the untenability of carrying on this way much longer.
Katie McOwen has had to make some tough decisions when it comes to money.
At the end of this month, she’s giving up her one-bedroom apartment and will move into a friend’s basement. The move sacrifices some of her independence, but it affords her some wiggle room with her finances.
The sixth-grade math teacher at Place Bridge Academy said she makes about $50,000 per year.
After paying $1,050 in rent, plus student loan payments, bills and other expenses, there’s not much left over. She also nannies during the summers to supplement income.
“I really am living paycheck to paycheck right now,” McOwen said. “If my car broke down or anything, I would be really hurting.”
McOwen is lucky that she doesn’t have to make car payments. She drives a 2000 Honda Accord, which just hit 310,000 miles. It works now, but she worries about the future.
“I know if something really happens, I will be in big, big trouble,” she said.
Why? Because she wouldn’t be able to go to work.
The 35-year-old is originally from West Virginia, the state that launched a teacher strike and inspired similar movements across the United States last year.
Her mother and sisters, who also live in Denver, have talked about moving back east, or somewhere near there, to find a more affordable life.
“My option was to either move there or I’ve been contemplating moving into a camper van,” she said with a laugh. “I knew something was going to have to change. It was either to move completely out of Denver or to bunk with my friend.”
Sean Bowers shares a place with three people.
They split the $2,500 rent. He lives in the smallest room and pays $600.
Change is coming, though. Two of Bowers’ roommates are dating and they’ll be moving out in May.
That fact of life has Bowers trying to figure out what he’ll do. Splitting that much rent between two people is more than he can afford.
“We’re just at that time of our life and it’s getting harder and harder to find roommates,” said the high school physical education teacher.
“All my friends are either married and don’t want to live with another random person, or I’m looking out for random people on Craigslist.”
If he opts to get a new place, he will have to pay yet another security deposit and the first month’s rent.
“I’ve had to take out loans before for just the security deposit and the first month’s rent because I don’t have that extra $800 to $1,200 to throw down,” the 30-year-old said.
Bowers’ base salary is $42,000, but he does a lot outside of daytime hours to make extra money.
He writes curriculum over the summer, runs a ninth-grade academy and he is the head track and field coach at North High School.
School and coaching duties mean that he’s in school from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the winter and spring. After all that, Bowers rolls into his other job as a Lyft driver.
He typically drives five to 10 hours a week with the goal of making an extra $100, he said.
“When you are teaching the lesson, when you are with the kids and when you see the change, you forget about all the financials,” Bowers said.
Yet he wishes he had a little time to “go home, rest, relax and work on other skills as a person,” he said.
“We’re not asking for a million dollars,” Bowers said. “We’re asking for an extra $200 to $300 per paycheck so that I can save up so that I can buy a house and live in my community and not jump from house to house.”
When Kelsey Brown left her teaching job in North Carolina, she hoped things would be better.
She moved to Denver in 2014 and started making well over the $28,000 she had before. One day she realized the extra money wasn’t adding up as much as she had hoped.
“As the years went on, I still have no savings account. I still don’t know where my money is going,” the 31-year-old said.
The Spanish teacher, now teaching her ninth year, made $56,000 before taxes last year. Yet, the rising costs of rent in Denver have been tough to stay ahead of.
The one-time incentives schools get when they reach certain levels of achievement also makes it hard to know how much she’ll make.
“You can’t bank anything on what you’re going to make each year because they have these little bonuses that come and go,” Brown said. “Two years ago, I made more than I’m making now.”
The newlywed works three jobs beyond her day job at North High School. Brown coaches the women’s varsity lacrosse team after school, coordinates an exchange program to Madrid and participates in a Spanish-language summer camp.
All of that brings in extra income, but it comes at a personal cost.
“I am burned out. There are days that I am walking in the building knowing I’ll be there until 8 p.m. that night,” she said. “There are just days that I, I don’t know how much longer I can do it.”
Brown got married in November and she gets to spend only about 30 minutes a night with her husband.
She gets up at 4 a.m. on school days, goes for a run and does not get home until after 5 p.m.
“We live for the weekends,” she said.
Sophia Leung is a first-year teacher who’s had to get creative with keeping down her expenses.
“Little products at home, like cleaning supplies, we’ll go to the dollar store instead of Target or even Walmart,” the third-grade math teacher from Ashley Elementary School said.
Leung is 26 and lives with her sister and sister’s boyfriend in Westminster. The three share a two-bedroom apartment that’s 700 square feet.
Leung does not plan to strike Monday because she cannot afford to.
“I really, really want to because I do support the mission … but I literally financially cannot afford to,” Leung said. “For me to lose out on $200 of pay a day, it does impact my bills for the month.”
She’s not a part of the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. She can’t afford the $70 monthly fee, especially as she’s in only her first year teaching, she said.
While doing her taxes, Leung discovered that her sister made slightly more money by working full time as a server. Leung said she made just under $43,000 as a teacher.
“I’ve worked in the service industry before, and I know how much money I can make being a server,” she said. “Seeing that my sister made more than me as a server with no college degree and here I am working full time … it was a big shocker.”
Leung’s sister works flexible hours, gets free health care and a 401(k) benefit offered through her employer.
“If I can get benefits elsewhere and have a more flexible schedule, why wouldn’t I do that?” Leung said.
Leung said she loves being in the classroom with her students and she’s getting her master’s degree. Yet, the financial burden of being a teacher has her wondering whether she can afford it without getting a second job.
“I see a lot of friends who are now my age settled in their careers not having to have second jobs,” she said. “It makes me really wonder if this is the right field for me. ”
Kevlyn Walsh is 30 and lives with her parents. It gives her a chance to save about $1,000 a month and focus on paying down bills.
“I can see that my bank account has more money in it,” Walsh said.
The digital art teacher is already working three other jobs. When she’s not in the classroom, Walsh works as a restaurant hostess, runs an Etsy business and does freelance graphic design work.
Walsh makes just under $47,000 before taxes each year.
Working multiple jobs in a day means Walsh has to carry a change of clothes and meals with her so she’s ready to transition from teacher to hostess.
School gets out at 3:15 p.m. and she has to be at the restaurant by 4 p.m.
“I drive to my restaurant, I change my clothes in the bathroom … then I work another four to five hours at my restaurant and then I get to go home around 9,” Walsh explained.
Walsh loves teaching photography and graphic design to upperclassmen at East High School. In her first year of teaching, she won the Colorado Art Educator Rookie of the Year in 2017.
Despite the accolade and her passion, Walsh is considering moving to another district or leaving the teaching profession if the teachers aren’t able to get a raise during the strike.
“I’ve been really involved with the union since last year because I started to feel and realize how bad my salary was and I wanted to do something about it,” she said. “We have to get paid more or I’m going to leave.”
“I truly don’t know if I’m going to keep teaching,” she said.