Denver union rebuffs district’s request to keep talking, both sides prepare for strike Monday

Denver schools superintendent Susana Cordova and her top negotiators spent a few hours Sunday sitting alone at a bargaining table after union officials rebuffed their request to keep talking less than 24 hours before the planned start of Denver’s first teachers strike in 25 years.

Negotiations halted Saturday evening when union bargainers walked away from negotiations, saying they’ll strike Monday and talk again Tuesday at the earliest.

That dramatic moment seemed to be the end of it, but the district notified the media on Sunday morning that it would be back at 9:30 a.m. and ready to resume. Cordova said the union did not respond to the invitation. Union negotiator Rebecka Hendricks told Chalkbeat the union believed little progress was being made and that everyone needed a cooling-off period.

That the two sides didn’t meet again is not surprising: Denver Classroom Teachers Association leaders have made clear that the time for talking is over for now.

Both sides instead spent much of Sunday preparing for the strike, with the school district trying to match substitute teachers to anticipated needs and taking other steps in a bid to keep schools open, and the union’s strike captains planning to meet to discuss their plans.

The strained negotiations over ProComp, the district’s complex teacher pay system, has exposed deep philosophical divides about how teachers should be paid. But the dispute is about more than that: it comes with a backdrop of heightened teacher activism nationally and pent-up frustration locally among opponents of Denver school reforms dating back more than a decade.

On Sunday morning, the room in a district building that had been crammed with red-clad teachers during intense bargaining sessions took on a dramatically different feel.

Cordova and three district staff members sat alone huddled over laptops in one corner of a square table. The only other people in the room were reporters.

Cordova said the union’s decision not to come back to the table was “incredibly disappointing” given that this will end in a deal and there was still time to potentially avert a strike.

“The most important thing we can do is get to work,” she said. “I am not sure I understand why they think we should wait until Tuesday. They don’t even want to meet tomorrow.”

On Saturday night, the district offered what Cordova framed as a significant proposal: eliminating performance bonuses for executive staff and cutting even deeper into administrative expenses — eliminating 150 central office jobs — and pouring the money into boosting bonuses for teachers working in schools identified as a highest priority to $3,000 from $2,500.

The union, however, advocates for eliminating that bonus altogether and using the money to boost the base pay for all district teachers. Union leaders believe the best way to attract and retain teachers is to offer them a competitive, stable salary, instead of bonuses that could come and go depending on a school’s demographics or other factors outside of their control.

District officials have been seeking to draw a starker contrast between those divisions, and Cordova continued Sunday when talking to the media.

“I want to say it over and over and over again that this is an issue of equity,” she said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “And equity isn’t equal. And I don’t believe it’s in our city’s best interest to take money out of the hands of teachers working in higher poverty places to spread around the city so everyone gets an increase.”

Cordova said the district has taken significant steps forward in negotiations and the union has not. 

Hendricks, the DCTA negotiator, said Cordova made the district’s last offer sound good at first, but it “didn’t move us forward at all.” She said the union had good reason to skip what felt like a publicity stunt on Sunday.

“The negotiations have been very emotional for both sides,” said Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith High School. “I think a cooling-off period would do some good in terms of moving negotiations forward a little bit more productively.”

No one knows exactly what to expect when teachers form picket lines outside schools Monday.

The district says it has been gathering information from principals about how many teachers they expect to walk out, although it’s impossible to know for sure until the strike begins.

As of 8:45 a.m. Sunday, the district had fielded 2,024 requests from schools for substitute teachers, said Debbie Hearty, the district’s human resources chief. Of those, 284 assignments had been made and accepted from the district’s sub pool, which has been bolstered in preparation for the strike, she said. DPS officials are paying subs $200 a day, twice the usual rate.

The district also has 1,400 central office staff ready to substitute-teach if they’re licensed, or fulfill other tasks like monitoring hallways and lunchrooms if they’re not.

Student attendance is key to the staffing puzzle. If many parents keep their children home, not as many substitutes and support staff will be needed.  

Cordova noted that during the recent Los Angeles strike, student attendance was higher in high-poverty schools, where parents are far less likely to have flexible schedules and be able to get off work to care for their children. District officials expect a similar dynamic in Denver, where 65 percent of students qualify for government-subsidized lunches, one measure of poverty.

Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.