Addressing the Jeffco Problem

To the Members of the Jefferson County School Board,

My name is Christine Kuster, and I have been a teacher at Arvada West High School for the last three years. Prior to my tenure there, I was a Fulbright Scholar who taught English as a foreign language in Germany and received my master’s degree in education from the University of Colorado Boulder. I have lived in Colorado for six years – the fulfillment of a life-long dream, having been born and raised in Iowa.

I see no point in sugarcoating the truth: My husband and I both work full time, both hold second jobs, and despite this, we barely make enough to afford the cost of living. This is unacceptable. I have enjoyed working in the neighborhood in which I lived. This week, as you are deliberating my worth, my husband and I will be relocating to the northern corner of Adams County where both homes and apartments are more affordable. Right now, the average cost of rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Arvada ranges between $1400 – $2000 dollars – more than half of what I bring home a month. For this reason, we began house hunting in order to find a place to live that would allow us to continue working in areas that we are both skilled and passionate about.

Earlier this spring, while researching more affordable living options, my husband and I stumbled across an uncomfortable reality: It is nearly impossible to find a single family home in Jefferson County without committing to a half-million-dollar investment. Homes priced lower generally required significant repairs with quotes ranging from $50,000 – $150,000 in out of pocket costs. Costs my husband and I, despite our best efforts, lack the ability to cover.

I would like to mention that my husband and I were only able to consider purchasing a home thanks to the generosity of my father who is nearing retirement. For this I count myself lucky; not every teacher can count on someone else to help them survive. While I am grateful to my father, I am also sickened by the reality that my husband and I work four jobs, save as much as we can, and still cannot afford a home in the county in which we work.

I am exhausted, both physically and mentally. From April 15th through May 10th, not a single day passed that I was not working. In fact, on most school days I worked beyond my 7:15-3:15 contract hours, preparing for finals and the distribution of my school’s yearbook. In between all this, I still found time to attend several extra-curricular activities in support of my students. This month-long marathon of working every single day has strained me to my breaking point.

You need teachers like me in the classroom. I am the teacher who constantly seeks improvement. I am the teacher who innovates and calculates and reworks and reteaches and differentiates. I am the teacher who sees my students as people. I am the one who understands and accommodates. I am the teacher students come to when they need help. In my classroom we celebrate together, grieve together, and grow together. My classroom is a safe space. I have walked students to class when they don’t feel safe in the halls. I have stayed after work countless times to listen to my students when no one else will. I do everything I can to keep my students engaged and inspired. When they fail, I fail. I hold not only myself but my students to the highest of standards, and when there’s a problem in my classroom, I do everything in my power to supply my students with the tools needed to solve that problem.

There is a problem in Jefferson County School District.

Why, year after year, do you refuse to address it?

There is a problem when I spend hundreds out of my own pocket to supply my classroom with materials. There is a problem when I am obligated to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. There is a problem when, with a master’s degree, I am paid ten to fifteen thousand dollars less after three years’ experience than most entry level positions pay employees fresh out of college. There is a problem when I can’t find affordable housing in my area. There is a problem when my husband and I cannot afford the children we desperately desire to have.

The 0.67% cost of living adjustment proposed last week is wholly inadequate. I joined Jefferson County Public School District because I believed it its mission, its students, its people, and its ability to rise above the post-recession pay freezes and political turmoil. In the fall, this belief drove my commitment to campaign and canvas door-to-door to ensure the passing of 5A and 5B. They both passed, and I felt hopeful. Recently, Denver passed an 11.7% raise on teacher salaries. Meanwhile, Westminster boosted their starting salary to just over $50,000 – several thousand more than I am currently paid with a master’s degree, three years of experience, and additional pay for advising yearbook. They also offered their teachers a path to 100k. To the north, BVSD offers $59,000 starting to someone with a master’s degree.

I’ve been watching bargaining all spring, wondering when the numbers would come across the table. Praying that my efforts campaigning would not prove in vain, that we could improve on or match what other districts were offering. When I heard those numbers, 0.67% (during teacher appreciation week, no less), my heart utterly dropped.

Why can’t we offer our teachers the same, competitive salaries?

My name is Christine Kuster, and I’m done with promises. I’m done with platitudes, and I’m done with “steps in the right direction.” The bottom line is this: fix your teacher pay problem or say goodbye to teachers like me. You may not recognize my worth, but I certainly do.