Denver Schools, Teachers Try to Negotiate Before Impending Strike

Union lead negotiator Robert Gould offers a handshake to Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova before sitting down to discuss compensation negotiations on Feb. 8, 2019.

DENVER (CN) – If an agreement is not reached by Monday, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association plans to strike. But teachers are used to working weekends, and the union promised to return to the table on Saturday with a new proposal.

Mediator John Newman said that while the two sides will eventually reach common ground, he is unsure if that will happen by the end of the weekend.

“This is going to end in an agreement,” Newman said. “The question is whether that agreement comes now or after a strike. The question is if we can get it answered before Monday—if we don’t get it done before Monday the problem doesn’t go away, it becomes more difficult.”

The meeting room at Denver Public Schools’ Acoma campus was filled to capacity with spectators elbow-to-elbow on the floor and camped out in the hall. While last week they jeered at the district’s proposal, on Friday night the crowd was tensely quiet, snapping their fingers here and there as the conversation hit on salary increases.  

“I apologize if the frustration is showing,” said DCTA lead negotiator Robert Gould. “We’ve been at it for 15 months and here we’re having the conversation we should have had six months ago, now when we’re 48 hours away from a strike.”

The union voted to strike on Jan. 22 after more than a year of negotiations with the district failed to create a new compensation contract. The district delayed the strike by appealing to the Colorado Department of Employment and Labor, which declined to intervene Wednesday.

An $8.5 million gap remains between the teachers’ requested pay and the district’s offer. The school district is willing to raise entry-level teacher salaries from $43,255 to $45,500, but the union is holding out for a beginning salary of $45,800.

To the north, Westminster Public Schools announced it would offer $50,000 base pay this week, while nearby Adams County pays its new hires $40,783 for a four-day school week.

Denver Public Schools’ offer averages out to a 10 percent raise per teacher, but the union wants a higher base pay less reliant on bonuses.

The school district has a total budget of $1.135 billion for the current school year, with $400 million allocated to teacher salary and an additional $33 million to fund a performance-based mill levy approved by voters in 2005.

The district offered a six-lane salary schedule, with movement based on professional development credits, experience and education level; the union agreed to limit lane advancements via professional development to one jump per year.

Union president Henry Roman pointed out that only six out of every ten teachers are able to complete one professional development credit each year, and the crowded meeting room laughed at the idea of a teacher completing more.

On Friday, the district also rolled out a novel  “longevity” salary lane bump awarding teachers who have been employed with the district for ten years.

While the district is asking for more concrete “fiscal guardrails,” the union is trying to bring teacher salaries closer to a living wage.

“What’s a living wage? Let’s start with making rent,” commented Mark Barlock, an English teacher at Emily Griffith High School.

Teacher wages stagnated behind growing costs of living in the Denver metro area, as both the population and real estate prices continue to rise. Education funding in Colorado is pinched both at the state and the local levels, with many critics pointing to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) as the linchpin to the problem.

Passed in 1992, TABOR prevents state lawmakers from raising taxes without voter consent. A ballot initiative that would have increased school spending by $1.6 billion failed statewide last November despite support from 60 percent of Denver residents. Additionally, the 1982 Gallagher Amendment, meant to maintain a consistent balance of contributions from commercial and residential property taxes, prevents local government from benefiting in Denver’s skyrocketing real estate market.

The Economic Policy Institute describes the difference between a teacher’s salary and a professional with similar education and experience as a pay penalty. Entry-level teachers often make 20 percent less than other entry level college graduates and by mid-career than extends to 30 percent.

If the strike materializes, 5,353 teachers, nurses and counselors will leave their posts Monday for picket lines. According to education news site Chalkbeat’s calculations, the district will distribute “sub tubs” to 1,400 central office employees, a pool of 1,200 substitute teachers and 300 emergency hires.

“I spent some time rereading the original agreement and there is a lot that no longer makes sense,” said Superintendent Susana Cordova. “What we want to commit to is to have a conversation about our disagreements.”

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