Tough talk

Denver teachers union’s strategy for this year’s contract negotiations: Go big

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

The Denver teachers union is taking a more bullish approach this year to negotiating its teachers contract, aided by a relatively new state law that requires bargaining sessions be open to the public and fueled by the notion that educators are fed up.

Its demands are lofty and its presence at bargaining sessions is palpable. Dozens of teachers have been showing up, and they aren’t sitting passively. They’re taking the microphone and telling Denver Public Schools negotiators how proposals would affect them and their students.

“It’s supposed to be about the kids,” a teacher said at a recent session, her voice trembling with emotion. “And we can’t serve our kids adequately if we’re not being treated fairly.”

The union is also live-tweeting the sessions, and when it streamed a session about the teacher evaluation system using Facebook Live, 2,200 people tuned in to watch, union leaders said.

Those actions have ramped up the tone of negotiations in a school district where the union has for years been losing political power as voters continue to elect school board members that back DPS leaders’ brand of education reform, which includes closing low-performing schools and expanding homegrown, high-performing charter school networks.

The union’s contract demands include a moratorium on charter school expansion, more transparency in school closure decisions and a $50,000 starting teacher salary.

“In order to make big change, you have to think big,” said Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and a member of the bargaining team.

Instead of nibbling around the edges, proposing things they think they can get, the union decided this year to ask for what it thinks teachers and students deserve, he said. Teachers unions in Chicago and Seattle employing similar tactics can point to some victories, including winning concessions on issues such as charter schools and recess time.

“If we never ask for it, it’s never going to happen,” Kern said.

Meanwhile, lead district negotiator Michelle Berge said DPS hasn’t changed its approach.

“Our strategy has been from the beginning that we will do everything we can to be generous to teachers,” she said. “We haven’t taken the position to start low so we end up in the middle somewhere. We’ve tried to be open and forthcoming about what we can do.”

The district’s salary proposal, for instance, would increase teachers’ base salary by a flat $572. Teachers would also get raises based on years of experience and education, as they have in the past, plus the district would contribute more toward their pensions. The proposal would also expand the number of teachers who get bonuses for working in low-income schools. The current base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $40,289.

Berge said the district bargaining team appreciates being able to hear directly from teachers, though she said the conversation can devolve when the two sides are having tough conversations about hot-button issues and passions flare.

“The emotions have always been a part of bargaining,” she said. Knowing what teachers feel strongly about helps DPS negotiators identify the most critical areas of the contract and push harder to come to a mutually agreeable resolution, Berge said.

But after nearly 40 hours of bargaining since negotiations began in January, the district thinks those resolutions have been too few and far between. On Friday, DPS took the rare step of declaring an impasse in negotiations, which means a mediator will be brought in. Berge said the two sides haven’t made progress on the major issues, such as teacher salary and benefits.

The district hopes the mediator will speed things up. The union sees it as a ploy to move the meat of negotiations behind closed doors. Although the sessions will still be public, the mediator could meet separately with each side in private to help them craft proposals.

“I absolutely think it’s a sign that we’ve been successful in public bargaining,” Kern said.

Audience participation

This isn’t the first time DPS and the union have bargained in public. Public bargaining between school districts and employee groups has been required by state law since 2015. Nor is it the first time teachers in Colorado have turned out in droves to watch.

But this year is different in Denver. In the past, the union and the district established ground rules about public participation (limited), and tweeting and recording sessions (not allowed). This time around, the union didn’t agree to any ground rules.

“Our union’s power is in the activism of its teachers,” Kern explained.

At first, the public participation was formal. The union would tap certain teachers to give short testimony on a particular subject at a set time. But over the months, that feedback has become more spontaneous. Berge said district negotiators have gotten used to it.

At an afternoon session last week, teachers fanned themselves with homemade signs in a stuffy elementary school cafeteria as they listened over a whirring fan to the discussion between the six people on the union bargaining team and the five people on the district team. In the cafeteria’s “allergy friendly area,” denoted on posterboard by a drawing of a crossed-out peanut, a cell phone on a tripod broadcast the session live on Facebook.

Nearly two hours in, talk turned to a section in the contract about when a principal must notify a teacher of a complaint. Berge argued the union’s proposal to require notification within 24 hours wasn’t needed because long delays were uncommon.

Teacher Margaret Bobb raised her hand.

“Can I give some examples?” she asked from her folding chair in the audience.

The 25-year science teacher and longtime union representative stood and talked about how she’d seen principals hold off on telling teachers about complaints so they could investigate, only to have their efforts thwarted by the school’s rumor mill.

“This, ‘Don’t tell the teacher, keep it a secret,’ just creates more angst,” Bobb said.

Other people in the audience nodded in agreement. Berge promised to take what the teachers said back to principals on the ground, get their feedback and come back with another proposal.

Bobb, who’s been to every bargaining session this year, said afterward that she thinks it’s been generous of the district to allow teachers to share their experiences and opinions. But she’s frustrated because it seems like no actual bargaining takes place at the table.

“They say, ‘Thank you for that information. We need to talk about it,’” she said.

Dixie Lingler, a 28-year vocal music teacher who’s been to most sessions, agreed.

“The district’s response often is, ‘We hear you,’” Lingler said. “In fact, I think in the last bargaining session I went to, I put a mark down every time they said that. … You can hear people but if you don’t take that into consideration in how you respond, what value is it?”

Both teachers said they like that the union is making bold demands for higher salaries, lower class sizes and more, including that each school have at least one community liaison, one full-time nurse and the equivalent of one full-time mental health specialist.

“There has been a lot of frustration in the teaching force,” Lingler said. The demands are “not necessarily what we want,” she said, but what is necessary to do the job.

Berge said the district is indeed listening. But the contract is complex. “There are few things in our universe that are simple enough that we can make quick decisions on,” Berge said.

She added that, “I feel like people leave dissatisfied because they feel they’re not getting a response. … It’s tough to defend every single practice from the district, in front of 100 people.”

From opposition to opportunity

The ballot measure that required public bargaining, known as Proposition 104, passed in 2014 with 70 percent voter approval and became law in January 2015. It was championed by libertarian think tank leader Jon Caldara, who said the goal was to move negotiations into the open so the public could watch, not open them up into a public back-and-forth.

“If the union wants to show up, even en masse, if they want to tweet, that’s their prerogative,” said Caldara, president of the Denver-based Independence Institute. But, he said, “I’d suggest they run it like any negotiation. This is not a public participation session.”

At least 12 other states allow public oversight of government collective bargaining, according to the Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Washington state whose website says it is “working to reverse the stranglehold public-sector unions have on our government.”

Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst for group, said that in the states he’s most familiar with, public comment is not allowed. While audience members will sometimes make a show of force by wearing the same T-shirt or sighing loudly, he said, outbursts are not tolerated.

The Colorado Education Association was among several groups that publicly opposed the ballot measure in 2014. (The Denver union is part of CEA.) Statewide union leaders were wary of the measure’s intent and didn’t like that it was drafted without input from educators.

But CEA vice president Amie Baca-Oehlert said the union now sees public bargaining as a great way to engage teachers, parents and taxpayers in the process. Open sessions have helped members stay informed about the latest proposals, she said, although she admits that most negotiations around the state aren’t nearly as well-attended as Denver’s.

“It’s not always the most exciting thing,” she said. “In some places, they struggle to get people to come. It doesn’t always have the fireworks that DPS and DCTA would have.”

In Denver, the two sides are scheduled to meet again on July 24 for the first of seven four-hour sessions set to run through the middle of August. The contract expires Aug. 31. Berge said she doesn’t envision the dynamic will change just because a mediator will be there to help when the parties get stuck.

“We want this process to continue,” she said. “We want the public comment.”

And it appears the union is ready to deliver it.

“Right now our plan is to go about business as usual at bargaining and continue to do the things we’ve been doing,” Kern said. “We’re committed to making sure this process stays in the public.”

Correction: A previous version of this story linked to a DPS webpage that listed an outdated starting teacher salary.

mea culpa

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

Adams 14 leaders took a close look at district data during an October meeting. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Looking back on years of poor performance, leaders in the Adams 14 school district considered taking a rare step: saying sorry. But an apology letter to the community was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the September letter that district administrators and board members were to have signed.

“Despite our well-intentioned tactics to get the district out of turnaround, six generations of school boards and four different superintendents and their administrations (including the current leadership) have not worked well together,” the draft letter states. “As a result, our various and conflicting priorities, coupled with the constant turnover and organizational disarray, have produced unacceptable results.”

The letter was written as administrators in the long-struggling suburban district learned that, for the eighth year in a row, students had not met state expectations in reading and math, and the district likely would face additional state sanctions. Multiple sources told Chalkbeat there was internal disagreement about the wording and tone of the letter. Several different drafts were presented, but without agreement, none were finalized or published.

District leaders did not respond to a request for comment about the draft letter.

The district has been working on improving community engagement with a consultant, Team Tipton.

The school board recently agreed to a $150,000 contract for the second phase of a two-year process “proven to be a transformational tool to help the district overcome historical dysfunction, drive a sense of integration and alignment, and set the platform for future success,” according to the resolution approved by the board.

A Team Tipton analysis of community opinion found a high level of distrust for the district, but also optimism about the future.

Some board members and the consultant team have prodded district officials to think more critically about the district’s performance, but many administrators in the district disagree with negative portrayals.

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management or more drastic interventions.

Here’s the letter in its entirety:



checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”