As local schools finish the first month of a new school year, teachers are facing overlapping challenges, like starting their classes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, or needing extra classroom supplies to protect themselves and their students.
In the past, some districts have turned to ballot questions to help improve funding and salaries for teachers. Taxpayers in the Mancos and Dolores school districts have approved school funding measures within the past 10 years, but Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 funding proposals have repeatedly failed.
Just before school started, Heather Frazier, an RE-1 district parent, looked for another way to help teachers throughout the county. But she didn’t want to do something that had been tried before.
“I would say probably by nature I’m a problem solver, so when I hear, year after year, how the district has no money, how the teachers are underpaid, or how the mill levy failed two or three times in a row, it got me thinking,” Frazier said.
In late August, she created a Facebook group, naming it “Montezuma County - Support a Teacher.” She was surprised to find out no one in the area had tried that method before.
“The teachers seem to have a lot of needs, they don’t have the budgets they need, [and] obviously we hear that’s why they’re underfunded. So my goal was to get them funds in the way that would be useful to them,” she said.
Instead of group members giving cash, teachers post requests for classroom inventory or supplies they need. They post photos or lists of their needs to the group’s main page, then members reply in the comments section if they can fulfill them. Although the group posts are public, only group members can make requests or contribute. Frazier encourages people from across the community to participate.
“The idea is to get people out of the mindset of, ‘I’m just going to help my child’s teacher’” she said.
Just two weeks after the group’s creation, Frazier posted that 40 teacher requests from 15 different schools in the county had been fulfilled. They ranged from basic school supplies like markers, binders, or colored pencils to COVID-19-related needs like individual water bottles for students, or microphones to amplify teachers’ voices through their masks.
Suzanne Deane is a third grade teacher at Mesa Elementary School in Cortez. Her co-teacher, Natalie Tamminga, posted a list of items, including laminating sheets, markers, a tape dispenser, and sanitizing wipes. She also asked for a set of vinyl, easily sanitizable cushions for students to sit on when they have class outside. The total cost for the supplies was $440, over twice the annual classroom budget of $200, which Deane says she usually supplements by paying out of pocket.
After Tamminga posted the request, Deane said it took about 12 hours for it to be completely fulfilled. Two individual donors and The Piñon Project, a local non-profit, had seen the post and covered the full list of supplies.
“It was just so quick and unexpected,” Deane said. “We were overwhelmed by their generosity. It was incredible for us.”
It wasn’t only the supplies that made her grateful, she explained. It was also the feeling of community support.
“We don’t always feel that [support]” she said. “We’ve had two mill levies to go down, and we’ve done everything we can do to not affect students, and not affect the community, but we’re really struggling. So when a group got together and said, ‘no, we think you are doing a good job, and we’d like to support you with that,’ that touched us so much to feel appreciated.”
District reactions to the group have been mixed. According to Frazier, principals in the Mancos and Cortez districts have suggested the page to teachers. But last week, the Dolores School District RE-4A administration directed its teachers to spend their classroom budgets first, and only post to the group if further classroom funding requests are denied. The district’s decision, according to Superintendent Lis Richard, is because Dolores passed a mill levy override in 2013 specifically intended to fund school supplies.
“If we’re going outside to other donors ... that’s fabulous, we love donations, but the issue is that then money is sitting in our accounts that’s designated to teacher supplies and needs,” Richard explained. “We just want to honor our taxpayers and the money they’re giving towards our school, and make sure 100% of that money is going to the teachers … we can’t spend it in other areas.”
Frazier called Richard’s decision a bit of an overreach. She and other group members didn’t see the harm in teachers having extra money in their budgets, or in having too many school supplies. But said she is open to discussing the matter with the district, and that the point of her group is to help — not to cause division.
As the group continues to grow, Frazier said she hasn’t fully decided what direction to take it. She is looking for a way to track numbers and types of donations, and to continue expanding the group’s size. She is also open to temporarily suspending it if donations slow down. And while she understands the group is not a perfect solution — or a replacement for better school funding — taking action now is important.
“It’s not going to save everything,” she said. “But if one person can take 10 seconds … and actually go through with the idea of helping, it’s going to infiltrate other areas, and hopefully cause people to believe that things can change.”
That belief, as well as creative thinking and generosity, is what gives people hope, she said.
“I think the giving spirit is a thing right now, just because of all that’s gone on, and the state of the economy, and everything else,” Frazier said. “So, I think it’s a trend that people are starting to catch onto, like, ‘hey, we’ve got to help others.”
Correction 09/21/20: A previous version of the photo caption did not identify both Suzanne Deane’s and Natalie Tamminga’s classes. It also incorrectly stated that Suzanne Deane posted the request for supplies on the Facebook group. Natalie Tamminga actually posted the request for both classrooms. The article text and caption have been updated.