Negotiations poised to resume as Denver teachers plead with district to raise pay

As Colorado’s governor weighs whether to intervene to head off a teacher strike in the state’s largest school district, Denver teachers packed a school board meeting Thursday night to press their demand for higher pay. They marched on the sidewalk in front of district headquarters, chanted in the lobby, and took turns giving sometimes emotional testimony to the board.

“I’m striking because I spend 182 days a year supporting and helping raise other people’s children, but my husband and I can’t afford to have children of our own,” said Bridget Stephenson-McKee, a third-grade teacher at Force Elementary, as she fought back tears.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said Thursday that the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have agreed to continue negotiations while they wait to hear if state officials will intervene. A date for negotiations has not yet been set; Cordova said the two sides are working on it.

Union President Henry Roman said that to make any progress toward an agreement, the district needs to come to the table with more money. The two sides are separated by about $8 million.

“They need to be ready to bargain,” Roman said.

Meanwhile, the district continues to prepare for how to keep schools open if teachers walk out. Cordova sent a letter Tuesday to employees who work in the central office making clear the expectation that they will be deployed to schools to work as substitute teachers or in non-instructional roles, such as hall monitors.

Central office employees, who include many administrators, will not be allowed to take vacation or personal leave from “now through the strike period” unless their time off was previously approved or they face “extenuating circumstances.”

Employees who refuse to follow the directive could face corrective action, district spokesperson Anna Alejo confirmed. District officials did not specify what corrective action means in this instance, but generally, it could include getting fired.

Teachers are also reporting pressure to stay on the job. On social media, some shared a letter from a district human resources employee that said immigrant teachers here on visas would be reported to immigration authorities if they don’t show up to work. The district later apologized, saying the human resources employee was mistaken.

The district must report a strike to the U.S. Department of Labor, but it will not tell the government the names of employees who choose to walk off the job, Alejo said. Immigrant employees cannot have their visas revoked for going on strike, according to a fact sheet prepared by the law firm that processes visas for Denver Public Schools.

Cordova previously said teachers have a legal right to strike and that “bad behavior” from administrators would not be tolerated.

Teacher pay negotiations fell apart last Friday when the union rejected the district’s latest offer. Union officials announced Tuesday that teachers voted overwhelmingly to strike.

On Wednesday, district officials requested intervention from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Union officials say they don’t want state intervention, which could delay a strike for as long as six months, though they have not yet filed a formal response. Once the union notifies state labor officials of its position, Gov. Jared Polis has 14 days to make a decision. Teachers cannot legally walk off the job until that decision is made.

Polis, a Democrat, has encouraged the two sides to keep negotiating in the meantime. A decision to intervene could be politically fraught, as many of the same progressive groups that swept Democrats into office in November also back the teachers union.

The district and the union are negotiating how to revamp the district’s pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp. It pays teachers bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary for things such as working in a high-poverty school or a hard-to-fill position.

But teachers say those bonuses make their pay unpredictable, and that funneling so much money into incentives over the past decade has gutted their base pay. The union wants a system that invests more money into base salaries and less into bonuses.

The district is pushing for certain incentives it sees as key to ensuring vulnerable students have good teachers, including a $2,500 bonus for teaching at a high-poverty school.

The district’s last proposal was to invest more than $20 million additional dollars into teacher pay. The union’s proposal calls for investing closer to $28 million in additional money.

At the legislature, House Majority Leader Alec Garnett lobbied Joint Budget Committee members to turn a mid-year adjustment in school funding into an opportunity to give Denver — along with other districts — more money to help them meet teacher demands.

Garnett said he thought there might be an opportunity to close some of the gap between the district and the union, but the answer was no. Moving money around for this purpose would have complicated budget consequences. State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat who serves on the budget committee, said it’s not the role of the legislature to head off a strike.

On Thursday night, the teachers who marched on the sidewalk, crammed into the school board meeting, and filled an upstairs overflow room demanded the district find the money. “What do we want? Fair pay!” they shouted in the lobby. “When do we want it? Now!”

Rebecca Ryan, a teacher who works at Gilliam School, a public school inside a youth detention center, gave a poignant example of how low pay has affected her family. A single mother of three children, Ryan said she has to rely on food banks because she can’t afford groceries.

“Look me in the eye,” she said to the board, “and tell me why it is okay that you guys have all this money you’re putting in central administration, and I can’t feed my (expletive) children.”

The teachers in the audience erupted in cheers.

Erica Meltzer contributed reporting.