The Denver Teacher Strike Is On; Union Breaks Off Contract Negotiations

February 10, 2019
Photo: Teachers Protest At DPS Headquarters 2 HV 20190124
Denver teachers and their supporters protested outside school district headquarters on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, ahead of a loud and contentious board meeting addressing a potential strike by the teachers union.

Updated 12:55 p.m. -- Tensions boiled over Saturday night as several hours of discussion between the teachers union and Denver Public Schools aimed at averting a strike came to a halt and a Monday walkout appeared inevitable.

Exasperated negotiators for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association ended talks after they asked whether or not Superintendent Susana Cordova would agree to their concept of a salary schedule that gives teachers more opportunities to advance and rewards them for professional development classes.

Cordova wouldn't give a specific answer and asked for time to consider their counter-proposal. DCTA lead negotiator Rob Gould tersely responded that they “can have some time, they can have until Tuesday!”

“You’ve asked teachers to compromise our values. We give you our talents every day, we give you our days, our nights and weekends, we give you our morning and afternoon commutes because we can’t afford to live in Denver. We give you our lives. What are you willing to give us?” Gould asked.

The talks ended. Teachers, many in tears, filed past Cordova and her bargaining team.

The union later tweeted out "We strike for our students."

The district bargaining team returned to the Acoma Street district campus on Sunday prepared to continue negotiations and invited DCTA leadership to keep talking. But no talks took place.

Chelsea Teutsch, a math and science teacher at Bill Roberts K-8, paused in front of  administrators as she left the room Saturday night. She told them she left a job in the corporate world and is dedicated to her students. On top of that, she said she works 50 to 60 hours a week.

“Please honor what we’re asking for, we’re asking for a fair pay,” she pleaded as negotiators listened.

“You don’t value us, and we want you to value us,” Teutsch continued. “I don’t want to leave my kids. None of us do. I cried yesterday leaving work? Did you? We believe in you, so please, on Tuesday, come with something. We want for this to be as short as possible.”

The strike would affect 71,000 students across 147 schools, and 5,353 teachers and specialized service providers such as social workers, psychologists and speech language pathologists in district-managed schools.

Denver Public School’s latest offer came late into the Saturday talks. More money was pushed into the mix by increased cuts to central administration by another $10 million — a reduction of about 150 positions over two years.

The district also proposed an increase to the retention incentive — $3,000 from $2,500 — for teachers who stay another year at the district’s highest priority schools.  Those teachers also get a $2,500 incentive for choosing to work at those challenged schools. The union has proposed scrapping the “high priority” incentive.

In DPS's latest proposal, they offered $2 million more for 2020 which they say amounts to a 10.5 percent raise for teachers on average next year. DPS says that proposal brought the two sides $6 million apart. If one factors in the high poverty incentives that the union opposes, the two sides are $13 million apart, according to the district.

On the job just five weeks, Cordova told negotiators she’s conducted a review of central administration and pledged to make it more “higher impact.” She won’t reduce departments connected to facilities such as janitorial staff, English language learners and special education students.

Cordova said performance-based bonuses for central office administration will be eliminated, with the additional money put toward the proposal. That prompted cheers from teachers. But the move incensed union negotiators who questioned why the district didn’t bring that proposal Friday night.

After an hour of analysis, the union deemed it “deceptive” and was angered as well that the new proposal included nothing about what they’d spent seven hours negotiating that day and had significant changes in how money is distributed.

“Why would you hold that until the very end if you had it the whole time, they knew they were going to bring it out and I think just plays into the deception tactics that they've used throughout this entire process,” Gould said. “They're trying to use the deception the smoke and mirrors of these proposals.”

“It seems there is no sense of urgency to get this done. It’s disheartening,” said union president Henry Roman.

Superintendent Cordova insisted that the district had been negotiating in good faith.

“We added in many of the things you’ve asked us for… it may not be exactly what you asked for, but we’ve made significant movement on new money, on what the structure looks like” and on incentives, she said. “Let’s make sure the goal is to get closer together instead of further apart.”

As she sought clarification of the union’s latest proposal, Cordova remarked that it added an additional $1.5 million to the gap that separated them. On Friday, she said the two sides had been $8.5 million apart. The union strongly disagreed with that interpretation, with neither side finding common ground on numbers and facts.

Cordova said the district’s goal is to have every school open on Monday, but parents should know by Sunday evening or at the latest, during the 5:00 a.m. “robo-call” if their child’s school will not open. Preschools that serve nearly 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds will be closed because of more stringent licensing requirements for substitute teachers.

The district said it will know by Monday how many teachers plan to strike, how many substitutes are available. It’s carrying out an “extensive” process to get central office employees who are licensed and unlicensed alike ready to teach, as well as recruiting substitute teachers.

Sunday 'Cooling Off'

On Sunday, Cordova told CPR News the whole process has been about more than money.

"I think we're hearing that's not about the negotiations is how teachers are feeling. You know, I think teachers are feeling disrespected. I think they're feeling that people don't care about them. I think there's a lot that has happened over the last decade, not just in Denver but around the country that's created a landscape where it's hard to feel good about being a teacher. I think that's terrible. I love our teachers. My best friend is a DPS teacher. I know how hard she works. I know how much she cares about her students."

DCTA Treasurer Rachel Sandoval, a 5th grade teacher at Godsman Elementary in Southwest Denver, was among a group outside the DPS building on Acoma Street Sunday demonstrating against the district. She said teachers were not inside negotiating because, "Our bargaining team has asked for a cooling off period. It's been a very long time of negotiating and right now they just feel like there's no give, actually regressing, and so they've just asked for some time to cool off."

"If you've been to our bargaining, you'll notice that a lot of our bargaining team, they're incredibly sick. One of our bargainers, her child cried for her most of the day so dad brought him and she held her son at the bargaining table yesterday," Sandoval said. "Our teachers, you know, we want to say students first, but what about us as well? Our bargainers are exhausted, they're sick, they need time with their family. And so I think it's a good one day out of 15 months, I think they've earned that."

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CPR's Ryan Warner contributed reporting.