Denver school principals unionize, request recognition to negotiate a contract

Lockers at Denver’s McAuliffe International School.
Lockers at Denver’s McAuliffe International School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver school principals have formed a union and are asking the school district for recognition. Their goals include fighting for fair compensation and against institutional racism.

The newly formed Denver School Leaders Association consists of 196 principals and assistant principals, representing 59% of school leaders in the district, said Co-president Cesar Rivera, who is principal of Samuels Elementary in southeast Denver.

The union has asked the district to recognize it as a collective bargaining unit, which would allow the principals to negotiate a contract as the teachers union does. But current school board policy doesn’t list principals among the employees allowed to unionize.

Board President Carrie Olson and Vice President Jennifer Bacon publicly acknowledged the principals’ request Thursday. Olson, a former teacher and vocal supporter of the teachers union, said the board has begun reviewing the request.

Superintendent Susana Cordova, a former principal, also showed a degree of support.

“I hear you and I understand why you brought forth this request,” she said Thursday. “I deeply believe in the power of collective voice to advance our profession.”

But Cordova also cited board policy, while noting that state law is silent on whether public school administrators can unionize. Cordova said she was a dues-paying member of a previous district principals association that no longer exists. She said she welcomes the opportunity to meet with the leaders of the principals union and is open to memorializing a compensation structure in writing even if the union is not formally recognized.

“I realize that’s different than what you’ve requested,” Cordova said.

Cordova and union leaders are scheduled to meet next week. The union co-presidents said being recognized as a collective bargaining unit, not simply an association, is important.

“If we’re just an association, principals don’t have any shot at a contract, which is needed to ensure that our leaders’ voice is heard,” Rivera said.

The Denver School Leaders Association is organizing with the American Federation of School Administrators, which represents principals in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco and has been pushing to increase its membership in recent years.

The Denver union’s platform includes advocating for equitable pay for principals. The co-presidents said they’ve heard stories of female principals with the same experience as male principals working at similar schools getting paid thousands of dollars less. Or principals who used to be teachers who would make more money if they went back into the classroom.

The principals also want a way to share their collective opinions about big district decisions, such as whether to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, how to reform the district’s controversial school ratings system, and whether to close struggling schools.

“DPS is rife with institutional racism,” said Eric Rowe, principal of PREP Academy high school and union co-president. “We’d like to use our collective voice to dismantle it.”

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