Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association contract bargaining team in a December contract session.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Denver teachers have voted to strike for a better pay and bonus contract -- the first vote of its kind in the city in 25 years.  Denver Public Schools officials have asked the state Department of Labor to intervene.

“The members have spoken,” said Rob Gould, Denver Classroom Teachers Associations lead negotiator.  “They’re striking for better pay, they’re striking for our profession and they’re striking for Denver students."

Ninety-three percent voted yes. The union did not say how many teachers voted.

The strike could start as early as next Monday, Jan. 28. It would affect 5,300 teachers and 71,000 students. About 20,000 charter school students and their teachers aren’t involved.

The vote came after the Denver Classroom Teachers Association on Friday rejected the district’s latest offer. More than $8 million divides the two sides.  They also disagree over the ways and how often teachers can qualify for salary increases.

Negotiations can continue after the vote. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova says the district wants to head off a strike.

“We think it's really important that we are continuing to try to resolve this issue,” she said. “We think it's really critical that the state intervenes because we have worked very hard, in very good faith, with lots of movement."

"I don’t think the differences are insurmountable,” she said. “It is really important that both parties continue to stay focused and we continue to work on getting closer and closer together."

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

DPS intends to make a formal request to Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to intervene and mediate a resolution. But the two sides already used a federal mediator last spring and a private mediator more recently.

The state has a range of options. It could order a new mediator, fact finding, and arbitration and conciliation - other formal processes designed to settle an impasse.

The state could also decline to get involved like they did for the Pueblo teachers’ strike last year. There is a key difference. The Pueblo teachers bargaining contract required fact-finding before an impasse was declared. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association rules don't have that same stipulation.

Any decision would likely come within two weeks. If state regulators decline to intervene, Denver teachers would be cleared to strike.

Teachers voted Saturday and Tuesday. Many say they are at the breaking point – both financially and emotionally. Many work 60-hour weeks.

“Most teachers including myself work second jobs and it’s difficult to manage that work life balance when you care so much about your students and their growth,” said Heather Jackson, a special education teacher at Godsman Elementary School. “It’s gets difficult when you're investing so much energy with the high demands without being compensated fairly.”

Teachers say the vote weighed on them heavily. They worry about leaving their students with substitutes and lost learning. Isabelle King sat with fellow teachers in the library after school on Friday talking through the positives and negatives of striking.

“I’m making the decision not just for me, but for other teachers in the district,” she said after voting on Saturday. “It's going to impact many, many thousands of kids. It’s very emotional. These are real people, you know, we don't build machines from a factory, we work with people.”

King says she works with the most vulnerable children in her school, Valdez Elementary.

“It hurts me that they'll be sitting in an auditorium watching a movie,” she said. “Every day for them counts and every day they have to miss means I lose even more with them.”

Other teachers say missing even a single paycheck would make it hard to pay rent -- but teachers say now is the time to take a stand.

New Money, Streamlined Incentives

The district says its proposal offers more than $20 million in new money whereas the union’s final proposal called for $28 million. The DPS offer was for starting salaries for new Denver teachers to be $45,500. The district says that’s higher than neighboring large districts such as Jefferson County, Aurora and Adams Five-Star, and second only to Boulder Valley. They say a typical DPS teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years of experience would earn more than $76,000. That’s base pay of around $70,000 -- plus one of the district’s incentives of $2,500, and $3,500 for being with the district for 10 years.

Denver Public Schools contract bargaining team.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Superintendent Cordova says the district’s offer is generous and responded to many of teachers’ demands.

“I'm not sure that we have seen anywhere across the nation teachers who have gone on strike to reject a 10 percent increase,” she said.

The 10 percent is an average, however. Not every teacher would get that much. It includes previously agreed upon cost of living raises.

High school English teacher Morgan Mendez says she’d get a three percent bump.  But it’s another issue that has rubbed her the wrong way and that has also been a major point of contention in negotiations: the district’s pay-for-performance system of bonuses that voters put into place in 2005. It rewards teachers for things like working in a hard-to-fill position such as math, or in a high-scoring school, or a high-poverty school.

Teachers complained the bonus system is unpredictable.

Both sides had reached tentative agreements on some of the incentives, but not on all.  Not in the union’s proposal was the $2500 bonus for teachers who work in 30 high-priority schools. The district says the bonuses are critical to keep teachers in those schools. The union instead wants more of that money moved into base pay.  

Mendez used to get one of those bonuses. She taught in a struggling school that was about to close. She says the children were demeaned, there was no library, and she says teachers weren’t held to high standards. A $2500 bonus wouldn’t begin to keep her there. She left.

“Incentives do not keep people there,” she said. “Good leadership keeps people there. Equity, one of our core values would keep people there. Integrity would keep people there. It’s not $2,500.”

A strong theme in dozens of interviews with teachers who voted to strike was the need to raise base salaries for all teachers.

Specialized service providers or SSPs – school nurses and psychologists -- are also striking. School nurse Lucy Roberts says she would get a healthy salary boost in the district’s proposal.

“But I’m willing to take a hit for my fellow teachers and SSPs ….DCTA is right on target for making sure all of the staff are supported, not just some of us,” she said.

Some teachers struggled over how to vote and ended up a no. Union member Linda Weiss has taught 23 years. She agrees teachers should be paid even more, and says the district is ‘way too top-heavy.’ But like several other teachers interviewed, she felt the district had made compromises to meet the union’s demands.

“I just felt like it seemed like a fair proposal to me and it seemed they kept coming back with more offers and I didn't hear that much from the union,” she said. Another reason is she’s 64 years old, single, the sole wage earner and needs to build her retirement as much as possible.

“It's all on me,” she said.

What’s Next

If a strike takes place next Monday, schools will be open, meals will be served, buses will run and Cordova says students will be safe and learning.

“We'll have high quality lesson plans, in every school at every grade level, every content area,” she said. “We have efforts underway to recruit substitute teachers. All licensed staff who work outside of schools will be deployed to our schools to cover classrooms.”

Cordova has said the district will find subs for all the teachers, in part by paying $212 per day, double what they pay now. The district has said some furloughed federal workers could be potential substitutes. The district promises subs will have lesson plans to use.

The district only has about 1,200 approved substitutes and it’s unclear how many of the 5,300 teachers will walk out.