With no Denver strike Monday, Colorado labor officials weigh the benefit and cost of intervention

Rather than walking off the job on Monday, many Denver teachers are planning to “walk in,” entering their school buildings together dressed in red to show their support for their union in its pay fight with the district.

The strike that was authorized this week by members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and that could have started Monday instead is on hold as all sides await word on possible state intervention.

“No strike Monday,” read a notice the union posted on its website late Friday afternoon. “Please report to work as normal. The strike is not cancelled — only postponed.”

Representatives of the teachers union have said they oppose state intervention, requested by Denver Public Schools, but the union still has not filed a formal response to the district’s request. Once it does, that starts a 14-day time period for state labor officials and Gov. Jared Polis to make a decision.

The state cannot block a strike indefinitely, nor can it impose an agreement on the two sides, but it can require the them to participate in fact-finding, mediation, or public hearings in an effort to encourage a deal. That could delay a strike by as long as 180 days.

Union leaders emphasized the importance of abiding by this process. Otherwise, a strike would be illegal and teachers and special service providers like counselors, nurses, and school psychologists would risk fines and even the loss of their licenses.

Meanwhile, the anticipation that sprung from the historic vote by teachers in Colorado’s largest school district has given way to frustration and tension.

“It’s exhausting,” said Shelley Flanagan, a reading intervention teacher at Valdez Elementary. “We’re ready to funnel the energy. We’re ready to be done with this.”

But for now, teachers at her school are maintaining as much normalcy as possible, preparing lesson plans for the week with the expectation that they’ll be deploying them, Flanagan said.

On its website, the union told teachers their principal cannot require them to turn over lesson plans for substitute teachers, though.

“A strike is not an absence,” the union said. “It is a work stoppage.”

The union also reiterated that the district said it made a mistake in an email to teachers working on immigrant visas. They are legally allowed to strike and will not be reported to immigration authorities. That email to immigrant teachers further exacerbated tensions, despite an unconditional apology and retraction by the district.

Polis has encouraged the two sides to keep negotiating during this time period, and Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said Thursday that the two sides have agreed to do so. However, no dates have been set, and union President Henry Roman said the district needs to come up with more money for bargaining to be productive.

Corey Kern, deputy director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said Friday the union remains willing to resume negotiations, but it’s not clear yet when that would happen.

The two sides were roughly $8 million apart when members of the bargaining team walked away from the table Jan. 18. Denver Public Schools and the teachers union are negotiating the terms of the ProComp agreement, a system that provides bonuses and incentives to teachers on top of their base pay.

The union wants the district to put roughly $28 million more into teacher compensation and reduce the value of most bonuses to put more money into base pay. The district has agreed to put $20 million more into teacher pay and wants to distribute more of that money as bonuses, particularly for teachers at high-poverty schools.

The union and the district had been negotiating for more than a year, the last several months with help from a mediator, when the ProComp agreement expired without a deal.

Alexandra Hall, director of the Division of Labor Standards in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said labor officials are looking at whether a third party could bring the sides closer together.

Several other news outlets reported that state intervention would allow negotiations to take place in private. State law requires that bargaining between public school teachers and their districts take place in public, which has led to sometimes raucous negotiations in which teachers boo district proposals.

Hall said private bargaining is a “hypothetical” that the department is exploring with the Attorney General’s Office. There may be a way to do it, but it’s still an open question.

“It’s probably easier to have a conversation when you’re not being interrupted by the comments from the public,” Hall said. “But we would have to hear from both parties that they agree there is a benefit.”

Kern said the union believes there is real value in negotiating in public and would not agree to private bargaining.

“It helps build trust for everyone involved,” he said. “It’s really hard when an agreement is reached and folks voting on it don’t know how you got at the decisions that you made. All they see is the finished product.”

Hall said she sees potential value in a formal fact-finding process. In bargaining sessions, the union and the district often did not agree on basic assumptions, like how much each proposal would cost or how much money the district has available for compensation. Fact-finders are usually professional arbitrators who have authority to dig through budgets and make recommendations. It’s not a fast process.

In the Pueblo teacher strike in May, the two sides had already used a fact-finder who sided with the union — but whose recommendations the school board rejected before teachers walked out. That report was influential in the department’s decision not to intervene.

Hall said the decision to intervene is one that the state does not take lightly. When two parties have been negotiating a long time and are close but not yet at a deal, that’s when mediation can be least effective, she said.

“What we have to weigh is, has this gone on so long and are they so close that we are simply getting in the way of the employees exercising what they need to do to bring this to resolution?” Hall said.