Denver teachers, district reach agreement that keeps some raises amid budget cuts

Denver educators and administrators negotiate potential pay freezes and furloughs during virtual bargaining on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Screenshot)

The Denver teachers union and district officials reached an agreement late Thursday that preserves some pay raises won in last year’s historic strike even as the district faces significant budget challenges.

Over the course of 13 hours of virtual negotiations, the district agreed to keep raises that teachers earn based on longevity as well as offer a 0.5% cost-of-living increase, with that amount to be doubled if voters approve a tax increase in November. The district will also use federal relief money set aside for COVID response to cover certain training and planning days for teachers.

While union negotiators offered for teachers to take a furlough day early in the bargaining session, the final agreement doesn’t include any unpaid days off for teachers.

Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova earlier this week asked the union to renegotiate the contract signed in February 2019 after a three-day strike. That contract secured substantial wage increases for teachers and special service providers like nurses and school psychologists. 

Denver Public Schools is facing a $65 million shortfall in state revenue due to widespread job losses and business closures related to efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That amounts to roughly 6% of the district’s $1.1 billion budget. 

To save $16 million, district officials had sought to eliminate a 1.9% cost-of-living increase and freeze step increases — pay raises that teachers earn for notching another year of service. Eliminating just the cost of living raise would have saved $7 million. It was not immediately clear Thursday night how much money the changes would save the district or where else officials might seek to cut.

Union negotiators argued that the district has other ways of saving money and described teachers now supporting households on one income after a partner lost a job. For many teachers, the new contract represented not just a pay raise but more certainty and stability, and more teachers stayed with the district this school year as a result. 

“We wanted to do everything we could to maintain that salary schedule that helps retain the best teachers,” union President Tiffany Choi said in an interview. “That was really important.”

The  negotiations started off on a  conciliatory note, standing in contrast to the often heated exchanges that marked public negotiations during last year’s strike. 

Cordova opened the Zoom call by saying she is committed to working collaboratively.   

“Our commitment is to finding solutions that work for the entire organization and put our teachers at the heart of our decision-making,” she said. 

Union Vice President Rob Gould, who was the lead negotiator during the 2019 strike, noted that the district and union “have been growing in our relationship over the last year,” and credited the school board for working to understand the issues at the heart of the budget and negotiations.

Union-backed members took control of the board after last year’s election. 

Choi acknowledged the budget poses a “difficult situation for everyone.” She said teachers “are here for our students” and willing to discuss what’s best for the district and students, but wants to prioritize the “backbone of the district” — teachers and support staff.

The district’s proposed budget aims to protect individual school budgets and the paychecks of low-wage workers, such as food service workers and custodians, while avoiding layoffs. It calls for $18 million in non-salary cuts from the district’s central office, which has long been criticized for being top-heavy and already underwent a round of cuts after the teachers strike last year. 

The district is also saving roughly $5 million through what it calls “progressive pay adjustments.” Low-wage workers would get pay raises while higher-wage workers would see their salaries reduced through a combination of pay cuts and unpaid furlough days. While the highest paid employees, including the superintendent, are taking the largest cuts, because there are fewer of them, those cuts don’t generate as much money as freezing teacher salaries.

During hours of negotiations, members of the union bargaining team combed through the budget, asking questions about contracts, training programs, and central office initiatives. 

In its counterproposals, union leaders suggested the district use federal coronavirus relief money to pay for at least one training day focused on preparing to teach under new public health guidelines and under new hybrid models. The final agreement calls for teachers to attend one paid training day related to COVID and receive a one-time stipend equivalent to eight hours of pay “for efforts related to necessary student support because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” both to be paid for with federal relief dollars.

The use of federal coronavirus relief money has become a point of contention in Denver and other districts. In addition to money that Congress dedicated to help K-12 schools, Gov. Jared Polis made an additional $510 million from the state’s allocation of relief money available to schools. This money is enough to offset a large portion of state funding cuts. However, districts still don’t have guidance on how they can use the money, and it must be used by the end of the calendar year. 

Denver, like many districts, is taking a cautious approach to how to use the money, but union members have pushed the district to be more creative. Union members have also said the district should pull more money from its $100 million reserve, while district officials say that money might be more badly needed next year.  

Mark Ferrandino, deputy superintendent of operations, said during negotiations that he has significant concerns about the sustainability of pay increases. Not only could the economic impact of the pandemic extend into future years, complicated tax provisions in Colorado’s constitution will lead to major erosion of property tax revenue unless voters agree to repeal them.

By law, the district needs to approve its budget by June 30.

Chalkbeat’s Eric Gorski and Ann Schimke contributed to this report.

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