DENVER (CN) – After a year of failed negotiations, 5,000 Denver teachers went on strike for higher wages just after dawn Monday.
“I thought about it for two solid days – can I really strike? Can I really leave my kids? I woke up every morning at 3 a.m. on the dot, thinking about it,” said Paula Zendel, who teaches middle school English language learners.
Zendel also enjoys teaching math, and crunched the numbers on the district’s latest proposed salary increases. Even with her master’s degree and a drive to earn National Board certification, Zendel is stuck in the middle of the pay schedule where she estimates her pay is shrinking $3,000 each year.
“I love my school and I love my kids, but I’m going to have to look at other school districts with higher pay,” she said. “If other districts are making it work, DPS can make it work.”
The union voted to strike Jan. 22 after more than a year of negotiations with the district ended with no contract. The district delayed the strike by appealing to the Colorado Department of Employment and Labor, which declined to intervene last week.
In eleventh hour negotiations over the weekend, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova revealed she spent her first five weeks in office reviewing the administration and found 150 positions to cut, pouring $2 million to the teacher salary pool. The district additionally added a “longevity” lane to its salary schedule which would allow teachers with a decade in the district to advance salary lanes.
Cordova’s proposal to cut administrative bonuses entirely drew praise from the union, but her commitment to funnel that money into incentives for high priority schools drew groans.
The district’s proposal promised to boost the educator salary pool by $23 million in the 2019-2020 school year, and met the union at its request for entry level salaries at $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 10.9percent raise per teacher, but the union wants a higher base pay less reliant on bonuses.
“I feel as though you are never going to be reach being a teacher, but I could pay my bills in Charleston,” noted teacher Lauren Grimes, who earned $28,000 on the east coast until she fell in love with the Mile High City on a spring break trip.
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 ProComp, or performance-based, mill levy approved by voters in 2005.
Saturday night, the district announced it would spend $55 million more on teacher salary over the three years of the new compensation contract.
The second-largest school district in the state, Denver Public Schools serves 90,000 students. The district also has the highest teacher turnover rate. Comparing employment data across school years from 2016 to 2018, the state Department of Education found Denver lost 20 percent of teachers, 18 percent of principals, and 29 percent of instructional support staff.
After 10 hours of hashing out the details on how professional development credits would apply toward career advancement, the union lost patience.
“They constructed a proposal to make it look like they were moving when they weren’t. There is absolutely nothing in this about professional development units,” union president Henry Roman told members. “It’s not a good use of time. We are extremely disappointed.”
The union is holding out “for a transparent and predictable pay schedule that prioritizes base pay over unreliable bonuses that disrupt students’ education.”
Denver Public Schools has closed all preschools due to a lack of qualified substitutes, but most K-12 classes are being covered by 1,400 central office employees, a pool of 1,200 substitute teachers and 300 emergency hires, according to education news site Chalkbeat’s calculations. Subs will be paid $200 to $250 to work through the strike.
East High School students joined their teachers’ picket line this morning, with many saying they were walking out for the rest of the day.
Union members have said they will strike as long as they need to, but negotiations will be revived Tuesday night.
Last week, 1,700 teachers, community members, and students wrote letters to Gov. Jared Polis explaining their position. In the words of one student, written in pencil across dotted training paper, it all comes down to this: “dear people who run the state, yall need to treet the teachers beter because they work really hard.”