Salt Lake City teachers walk out to demand more funding, support for students

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Woznick and fellow teachers from Meadowlark Elementary rally with 1,500 educators and supporters at the Capitol on Friday. Teachers in Salt Lake City's teacher's union stage a walkout and rally at the Capitol to protest teacher pay in an effort to pressure the Utah State Legislature as it decides how much money it will allocate to the state's education system. Teachers began the rally at the Federal Building and walked up Capitol Hill to the statehouse for a rally in the rotunda, Feb. 28, 2020.

Jennifer Jacobson has been to five funerals in the past five years.

Each one was for a student of hers at Highland High School who died by suicide. Each day she fears she won’t be able to prevent another.

“Our kids are in crisis,” she said. “But they don’t know where to go. Mental health care at our schools is just completely lacking.”

On Friday, Jacobson held back tears and held up a sign calling for more education funding so her students can have better access to counseling. She had joined hundreds — close to 2,000 — of other Salt Lake City teachers as they walked out of class early to go to the Capitol, where they demanded lawmakers spend more on schools this year.

“We’re walking for our students,” Jacobson said, “not our salaries.”

The demonstration was one of the largest ever shows of force by teachers in the state.

They flooded State Street as they marched up from the Federal Building, spanning nearly two blocks at a time and chanting “Our students deserve more.” Most wore red T-shirts to show solidarity as an education community. And many carried handmade signs made from manila folders or propped up by classroom yardsticks.

One art teacher carried an easel with her message. A first grade teacher had her students draw pictures of themselves and pasted them on her poster so she could carry them with her.

The downtown rally was led by the Salt Lake Education Association, the local teachers union representing Salt Lake City School District, though the marchers met up with members of the statewide Utah Education Association once inside the Capitol. The groups filled two floors of the building as legislators looked down with curiosity.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, defended the teachers’ rally Friday, and added: “We’re going to fund public education significantly this year. We certainly value everything that education does for us."

Others senators also expressed appreciation for teachers and defended their funding plans.

The educators called for enough money for schools to reduce class sizes and hire more substitutes and counselors — the mention of which made Jacobson cheer.

“It’s time to get serious about funding our schools,” shouted James Tobler, president of the Salt Lake City union. “Teachers are at their wit’s end. Secretaries, custodians, student advocates, they’re all leaving our schools because they’ve overstressed and underpaid.”

Teacher Chelsie Acosta explained how she couldn’t take a day off work to go to one of her mom’s cancer appointments. It’s not that the eighth grade educator didn’t have sick time available — she had plenty. But her school wasn’t able to find a substitute to cover her class, so it denied her request.

Three months ago, Acosta’s mom died.

She fought back tears Friday. Her mom was an educator for 47 years. Acosta wants to be in the classroom that long, too. But, she said, to be able to do so, schools need to have money to hire enough support staff and not run their teachers into the ground.

“My mom told me to improve our schools here,” Acosta said. “And I want to honor her.”

The teachers are calling for a 6% increase to how much the state spends per student (or $1,234 more for each kid). Utah currently holds last place in the nation for that funding — and the requested raise wouldn’t change that. But Tobler hopes it would still make a difference.

Sarah Nichols, a special education teacher who works alongside Jacobson at Highland High, did the math. She said in order for the state just to meet the national average for pupil spending, it would have to raise the rate 70%. State lawmakers are proposing 4% — or $136 million — despite a massive surplus.

“Start with 6,” Nichols shouted along with the crowd, waving a massive sign in her arms. On the board were 3,000 little student figures, each one representing how many kids there are per school social worker in the state.

Jacobson, who has been teaching for 27 years, added that mental health is where funding is the most needed. She’d like to see more suicide prevention work with therapists and psychologists in classrooms and less awareness campaigns, like the governor’s task force on the issue. “We’ve got to actually help our kids,” she said.

Others held posters that said, “Support mental health” and “Underfunding education is the REAL school bully” and “Kindergarten math adds up better than our education.”

Darby Pearson used colorful markers to spell out: “If u kepe hurtin UT edukaton mor sines wil luk like dis.” The fourth grade teacher at Meadowlark Elementary School said a big issue for her is not having enough money for supplies. The history books in her classroom, for instance, were written more than 30 years ago.

“And ironically, they’re Utah studies books,” she said with a laugh.

Because so many were expected to participate in the walkout, the Salt Lake City School District held half-days at all of its schools. That announcement and the overall plans for the walkout created some controversy earlier this week.

On Wednesday, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson spoke out, saying he disapproved of the teacher march and suggested there were “more productive ways to express concern.” Even with most schools on an early dismissal schedule on Fridays, Wilson criticized the event as an “unnecessary disruption” to student learning.

He said, too, that his door is “always open to productive discussions,” but no educators have reached out to him with their requests.

Several at the rally Friday said that wasn’t the case.

Heidi Boogert, a third grade teacher at Highland Park Elementary, carried a sign that read, “Can you hear us now, Mr. Wilson?” She said she and other teachers have been at the Capitol all session, talking to lawmakers and sitting in on committee hearings. They had a huge gathering, too, on Valentine’s Day.

And she’s personally talked on the Hill about how the principal and vice principal clean the lunchroom each day because they haven’t been able to hire custodians.

“That’s ridiculous,” Boogert said. “So I do hope Mr. Wilson will see us. What he said is baffling.”

Greg Mohammed, a teacher at Horizonte, added that he’s also been talking to legislators “and no one listens.” He believes they like to say they care about education — but don’t actually act on that.

“We’re tired of being last in funding,” he said. “It’s very frustrating. We’re tired of not being able to take a sick day. We’re tired of being ignored.”

As they moved toward the Capitol, a nearby school bus honked and residents cheered from their roof tops. When the group got to the stairs of the statehouse, the gathering was so large that those at the top chanted something different from those at the bottom. One teacher teased that it was just like trying to teach her biology class of 50 students.

Tobler told the crowd to be loud and “use their teacher voices.” Jacobson urged participants to be a voice for those — like her five students — who couldn’t be there.

Editor’s note • This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.