DENVER (CN) – After school Wednesday evening, hundreds of Denver public school teachers who voted to strike gathered in front of the Colorado State Capitol, donning yellow sashes of caution tape.
“It’s cautioning to beware of pissed off teachers,” explained one man unloading yards of ribbon from his arm.
Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association are expected to meet Thursday morning to discuss the compensation agreement that drove the union to vote to strike last week.
In response to the looming strike, the district formally requested the Colorado Department of Employment and Labor to intervene. Any strike is legally stalled until the state issues a response.
The Colorado Education Association, the union’s parent group, sponsored Gov. Jared Polis in the election. Wednesday morning, Polis met with legislatures to make good on his campaign promise for free universal kindergarten in the state, but he has not indicated whether he will step in between the district and the union.
“Polis campaigned on teacher’s rights, so I hope he respects that this is a dispute between an employer and employees,” said Jessica Wolf, a local first grade teacher. “The $8 million boils down to $58 per paycheck, so it’s not about the money—it’s about the students, they deserve the best.
Current teacher salary starts at $39,851 with the district average of $50,449. The school district’s proposed budget would increase starting pay to $45,500, tipping the average teacher salary up to $55,819 along with offering “additional incentives” to teachers through the state’s compensation program known as ProComp.
Despite more than a year of negotiations, an $8.5 million gap remains between the teachers’ requested pay and the district’s offer. The district offered an average 10 percent raise per teacher, but the union is holding out for 12.5 percent pay raises that are less reliant on bonuses. ProComp expired on March 14, 2018, but was extended through Jan. 18 pending negotiations.
The ProComp system adopted by Denver voters in 2015 touts financial incentive to teachers in disadvantaged schools and who meet certain educational goals.
But the union criticized the pay system as unpredictable, dangling incentives that are beyond the control of individual teachers or that the district lacks the data to accurately evaluate. Critics of the system also say it gives school administrators an unfair and subjective advantage over teachers.
In its own petition to the state Department of Labor and Employment, the union underlined that the dispute hinges on a “philosophical difference behind the salary schedules.”
“[The district’s] steadfast insistence on incentivizing teachers differently than other Colorado school districts is contrary to the findings of studies conducted by both parties,” the union wrote. “Ever since the adoption of ProComp 2.0, studies have consistently found that teachers are not motivated by unpredictable bonuses, and such bonuses do not reduce teacher turnover. Rather, 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.”
The district said educators’ base pay raise would come at the cost of incentives used to bring teachers to high poverty schools.
In its request to the state for intervention, the district worried that a strike carried the burden of lost instructional time and empathized the number of students who rely on their schools for medical care and meals.
The district has said it would pay subs double wages to work through a strike—$212 a day—and teachers observed as boxes of “sub plans” were delivered to schools. But some teachers wished the district would pool those resources into a plan to stop a strike rather than cope with one.
“We can’t even print copies of lesson materials, and they’re printing boxes of sub materials and canceled scheduled professional development to prepare for a strike,” said one Merrill Middle School teacher, adding that she remains “optimistically hopeful” that a deal will be struck.
“We were supposed to focus on narratives today, but two-thirds of my students joined in a sit-in in the hall in support of their teachers. They were writing emails and letters to lawmakers,” said Aly Nutter, a language arts teacher at Merrill Middle School. “We just want to be treated and compensated as professionals.”
Encompassing 178 schools, Denver has the largest district in the state, serving more than 90,000 students.