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.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has asked the state not to intervene in its contentious salary negotiations with Denver Public Schools.

The union’s response, filed Monday with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment states only the union and district can find a solution to the dispute.

“Denver teachers believe state intervention in our negotiations with DPS would be futile,” said DCTA President Henry Roman, and would be an endorsement of the district’s “abusive tactics.”

Union officials use the word “futile” because they see the two sides as too far apart for it to make a difference at this time. It argued that experienced mediators were already unable to help close the $8 million gap between the two sides, and now the union wants the right to strike to pressure the district.

A strike would affect approximately 5,300 teachers and 70,000 students.

“Reopening negotiations will not be productive until DPS recognizes our need for a fair, predictable salary schedule and commits to bring more funding to the public bargaining table,” Roman said.

The union’s teachers voted overwhelmingly to approve a strike after talks collapsed. The two sides disagree over salary schedule, how much money goes into incentives and the ways in which and how often teachers qualify for salary increases.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment may intervene if both sides request intervention or if the agency determines the dispute “affects the public interest.”

In its response in opposition to intervention, DCTA said a major sticking point in the impasse are incentives. The union opposes “incentivizing teachers differently than other Colorado school districts.” They state that studies conducted by both sides show teachers are not motivated by unpredictable bonuses, and such bonuses do not reduce teacher turnover.

Rather, the response said: “teachers are more likely to continue teaching in a school district when they have the ability to earn a livable wage, and when they can accurately forecast their future earnings.”

DCTA also argues that DPS has resorted to “shameful intimidation tactics.” They include an email sent to teachers on work visas that warned if they strike, they would be reported to immigration. The district has apologized for the email.

Other alleged instances include principals who have asked for five days’ worth of lesson plans to use during the strike and “falsely” issued corrective warnings to school nurses if they strike.

The response said the examples indicate DPS is leveraging its position as an employer to “instill fear and intimidate employees” and that situation would be maintained if the state were to intervene in the dispute.

In asking for state intervention, DPS said that “if we are forced to close schools” it would mean lost instructional time for students and would impinge on the district’s efforts to close the achievement gap.

“When our lowest performing students miss out on instructional time, they suffer the most, and have the most difficulty catching up. Every day matters,” it reads.

In addition, the request points to potential disruptions to a number of student groups including students with significant mental health needs, student athletes seeking scholarships, and students in need of after school care, which would place financial hardships on families.

DPS general counsel Michelle M. Berge writes in the district’s request for intervention that a strike “in the largest school district in Colorado undeniably affects the public interest.”  

The teacher’s union counters that that the district’s “public interest” argument for state intervention have already been raised and rejected in court. Nearly 25 years ago, DPS and the union, along with the department of labor, met in court over a similar dispute.  

The union said a judge turned down the state’s request to order Denver teachers back to work, arguing that when the legislature permitted public employees the right to strike, “it must have considered and known about the impact of a strike upon children, and they must have balanced that with the benefits of permitting public employees, such as teachers, to strike.”

The strike was originally scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, but first the CDLE must decide whether or not to intervene. The agency has up to 14 days to issue a decision. If it decides not to intervene, teachers are cleared to strike.  If it decides to intervene, it could postpone a strike for up to 180 days.

Editor's Note: Due to an editor error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the original start date of the teacher strike.