For First Time in 25 Years, Thousands of Denver Teachers Strike

by | February 12, 2019 AT 7:00 AM

By Elizabeth Hernandez, Elise Schmelzer, Jessica Seaman and Saja Hindi

Educators at Denver's 160 public schools initiated the city's first teachers strike in 25 years Monday morning after Gov. Jared Polis declined to intervene in their compensation dispute and 11th-hour contract talks with district leaders fell apart over the weekend.

The strike follows 15 months of negotiations over teacher wages.

"We felt like we had to use the last tool in our tool chest to get them to listen," Rob Gould, lead negotiator for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said at a morning news conference outside South High School. "...We think it's important that DPS sees and knows and understands what it's like not to have teachers in the classroom."

DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova announced at a late-morning news conference that the district and union will resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

"It's a problem for our kids not to have their teachers in class," she said, "so I want to get this done now. I'm very happy that we will be back at the table. We were ready to negotaite yesterday."

Just before noon Monday, district officials announced that 2,631 of Denver's 4,725 public school teachers had joined the walkout, or about 56 percent. That's up from a morning estimate of about 2,100 teachers.

That also included 507 teachers at the district's high-poverty schools, or about 44 percent of those educators.

The district still has not said how many students were absent Monday.

Denver Public Schools officials announced Sunday evening -- and confirmed Monday morning -- that all of the district's schools will remain open Monday, meaning administrators believed they would have enough substitute teachers and personnel from the district's central office in place.

DPS preschool classes, however, will be canceled beginning Monday and for the duration of the strike because the district doesn't have sufficient licensed support staff. This will affect 4,714 students.

Ahead of Monday's strike, the district hired 300 new substitute teachers in addition to its 1,200-person active roster of subs, while 1,400 employees from the central office were told they will be required to help fill in the gaps at schools.


Chants, signs and marchers

Across Denver, teachers and their supporters gathered outside schools, marching with hand-crafted signs as they demanded better wages from the district. Not surprisingly, the city's larger high schools drew bigger crowds than some of the smaller middle and elementary schools.

Kimberly Beckeman, a ceramics teacher at South High School, was among the throng of teachers picketing outside that school early Monday morning.

"I hope my students see me out here standing up for what's right," she said.

Beckerman said she's considered leaving the district for better pay and wants her students to have quality teachers.

Emma Hoeschler, 17, is a junior at South High who came out to picket with her teachers.

"I think our teachers are such great influences on our lives," she said. "They deserve to be paid fairly."

Hoeschler said South High students are planning a walkout at 8:30 a.m. in support of their teachers

The crowd outside South High even included a canine protester: a dog named Ollie wrapped in a sign that said, "Hey DPS, throw us a BONE."

The dog's owner, Ryan Marini, has worked for DPS for 17 years, and said his wife, also an educator, left the Denver district for the Cherry Creek School District.

"I've seen so many good teachers leave," Marini said. "That's why I'm here."

At East High School, just off Colfax Avenue, a large crowd of teachers paced the sidewalk, with one using a bullhorn to lead chants of "Hey, hey DPS, time to clean this filthy mess."

Aimee Baker, a teacher at East High, said she's been with the district for 12 years, and, each year since 2014, it's felt like the teachers were getting closer to a strike.

"We're just asking for a predictable, fair living wage," she said.

At William (Bill) Roberts Elementary School on the east side of Denver, a crowd of about 20 people marched outside the school carrying signs with slogans such as "I only got into teaching for the $$$$! -- Said NO teacher EVER."

The teachers outside Bill Roberts Elementary chanted about their push for increased base pay: "We're all about that base, about that base -- no bonus!"

An even smaller crowd was assembling outside Denver Discovery School, where about nine teachers gathered with signs, and one brought breakfast for the rest. One of their signs read: "We work hard for the money, so you better pay us NOW!"

Melea Mayen, a Denver Discovery teacher, said she walked out of her classroom last year when she was teaching in North Carolina.

"Even though I get paid more here, the cost of living is triple what it was there," she said.


Lead-up to the strike

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association last month voted to authorize a strike after its negotiations with DPS failed to secure a new contract governing educator compensation through the district's 20-year-old ProComp system. At the time, the two sides were about $8 million apart in their respective compensation proposals.

Once the union authorized a strike, DPS officials formally asked Polis to intervene, a move that delayed any strike until the state government weighed its options. The governor ultimately declined to step in -- something that could have further delayed a strike by up to 180 days.

Once Polis made his decision last week, union officials declared they'd strike on Monday, setting the stage for a final burst of bargaining. Representatives of DPS and the teachers met on Friday night and much of Saturday afternoon, but, in the end, the union walked out, setting the stage for Denver's first teacher strike in 25 years.

Saturday's 11th-hour session grew increasingly contentious as union representatives rejected the latest DPS proposal, which would cut central office jobs and increase incentives to teachers working in high-poverty schools -- the latter being a sticking point with the union.

The latest offer from DPS included:

-- Eliminating 150 positions in the district's central office over the next two years, freeing up $20 million

-- Putting $22 million in new funds into teachers' base salaries next year, and a total of $55 million over the next three years

-- Increasing teachers' base salaries by nearly 11 percent next year

-- Eliminating performance bonuses for central administration staff

-- Increasing annual incentives for teachers working in high-poverty schools to $3,000 from $2,500

"Teachers were stunned when DPS proposed hiking incentives instead of putting that new money into base pay where it could make the entire district more competitive," Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said in a statement.

The district countered that its latest proposal would result in a nearly 11 percent increase in teachers' salaries next year.

"Obviously, I'm incredibly disappointed," DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova said when the union ended negotiations Saturday. "We are ready, willing and able to continue working. It's not even 8 p.m. We have all day tomorrow."

Cordova and her team made themselves available to continue bargaining on Sunday, but the union did not accept their invitation. Union officials said they won't come back to the negotiating table until Tuesday at the earliest.

This is a developing story and will be updated throughout the day. Check back for updates.

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