DENVER (CN) – Joined by students on the picket line, 5,000 Denver teachers began their strike Monday over performance-based compensation plans while a federal class action lawsuit was filed against Denver Public Schools by parents of a special education student who claim the strike harms their child.
Igor Raykin, of the Aurora-based law firm Kishinevsky & Raykin, filed the lawsuit on behalf of E.A., a special education student and 10,642 similarly situated students enrolled in Denver. The complaint alleges that the strike poses a risk to the students.
"These students require assistance from essential employees, such as special education teachers, counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and therapists, and medical needs such as feeding tubes or breathing apparatuses operated by those employees and school nurses,” the complaint states. “Without these critical services, these students’ health and safety would be in jeopardy.”
In anticipation of a strike, the school district canceled preschool classes and scrambled to hire enough subs to cover classrooms, including 1,200 substitute teachers, 300 emergency hires, and 1,400 office staff.
When asked about the allegations, Will Jones, the district’s director of media, said special education students were included in their emergency strike plan.
“The district has checked in today with all of the schools that have a center program for students with disabilities and school leaders report that they are well supported,” Jones said. “When the potential for a strike became apparent, DPS immediately began planning to prioritize supports for our most vulnerable students, particularly our students with disabilities. We actively recruited substitute teachers with special education endorsements and expertise.”
In the mean time, the lawsuit asks the court to order the school district "to immediately inform the parents of all disabled children how it will meet the special education needs of those children during the strike" and to either hire outside contractors to serve disabled children or to reimburse parents for the cost.
Thousands of teachers, nurses, and psychologists carried signs around picket lines in the morning and then up to the state capitol in the afternoon, but some said their heads were in their classrooms.
“I might be checking in on my kids remotely,” admitted Christy Berger behind blue sunglasses while climbing up to the capitol. A teacher of 18 years, Berger’s Montessori Middle School students each follow individualized lesson plans which were lost in combined classrooms. “I’m feeling anxious, I’d rather be in my classroom, but teachers don’t get raises and the cost of living is going up. Even the incentives have gone down and they’re not worth the extra work. We do it anyway, but not for the incentive.”
The teachers’ union and the school district remain largely divided on the weight performance-based bonuses should have in their compensation structure. During 15 months of pay negotiations, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has asked for larger base pay and smaller bonuses.
Over the last week, the school district cut administrative bonuses and committed to laying off 150 central office employees to increase teacher salaries. Rather than budge on the issue of bonuses, the district used its new found funds to increase incentive bonuses for teachers in high priority schools.
The district’s latest proposal promised to increase the teacher salary pool by $23 million in the 2019-2020 school year and met the union at its requested entry level salary of $45,800.
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 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 last week.
“Today has been a wakeup call for the district, because DPS has realized it can’t run a district without teachers and special service providers,” said Robert Gould, a special education teacher and the union’s lead negotiator. “Today Denver Public Schools has been forced to reflect on why we need a transparent and predictable pay schedule that prioritizes base pay over unreliable bonuses.”
Union members will return to the negotiating table Tuesday morning.