Denver teachers — some fighting back tears, others filled with energy and purpose — streamed into a rented Baptist church Saturday to cast a high-stakes vote on whether to go on strike.
If their answer is yes, it would be the first strike in Colorado’s largest school district in 25 years and affect some 71,000 students and 5,300 teachers.
The vote on Saturday and another scheduled for Tuesday evening come after the Denver Classroom Teachers Association rejected a district offer and ended negotiations late Friday night, the conclusion of months of bargaining that left the two sides still more than $8 million apart and with significant philosophical disagreements about how teachers should earn raises.
“This is about solidarity of all the workers for the district,” said Kris Valdez, who has taught physical education for 17 years at Columbian Elementary, a high-poverty school in northwest Denver. “For as long as I have been in the district, I feel like we have kind of always been taken advantage of. Now we’re coming together and seeing we have a lot of power when we unite.”
Valdez voted to strike, citing as his primary reason what he sees as a district that is too top-heavy. He, echoing other teachers, said he believes the district can invest more in teachers and paraprofessionals than in “deans of cultures, deans of this, deans of everything.”
The teachers union and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.
Both sides’ proposals moved Denver teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allow for reliable raises if teachers stay with the district and earn more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, with some of that money set aside for bonuses, while the union’s last offer demands an extra $28 million toward compensation and keeps more of it in base pay.
On Saturday, the district sent an email to teachers making the case for its salary proposal and inviting them to use an online tool to see how much more they could be making if the union would just say yes. The email also urged teachers who aren’t union members to join and vote if they want their view to be heard.
At a press briefing Saturday, Cordova said the district had talked to teachers who would be making as much as $15,000 more.
“That’s a very compelling offer to our teachers and it recognizes the very high cost of living in Denver,” Cordova said. “It’s hard for me to understand that we would have teachers who are willing to go out on strike, who will attempt to shut down our schools, who will interrupt the education of the children of Denver because of 10 percent increases on average.”
Cordova noted that teachers in Pueblo went on strike for 2 percent raises last May, while teachers in Los Angeles are on strike for 6.5 percent raises. The district describes its offer to Denver teachers as a 10 percent average increase in base pay, a figure that includes cost-of-living raises the union and the district already agreed to in their master contract in 2017. The union’s proposal would amount to an average increase of 12.5 percent.
The actual raises that Denver teachers would see under either the union or the district proposal vary considerably depending on the current circumstances, educational level, and longevity of the teacher. Both sides have provisions that prevent teachers from losing money in the transition.
Cordova said the district is planning to cut $10 million in administrative costs, a figure that includes many central office jobs, to pay for teacher raises, as well as additional cuts to fund raises for paraprofessionals, bus drivers, food service workers, and others.
Money is not the only source of disagreement. The district feels strongly about keeping $2,500 bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools, while the union wants more of that money to go into base pay and wants a salary schedule that allows early career teachers to earn raises more quickly.
Union officials were tight-lipped Saturday about how things were going during the vote at Riverside Baptist Church, home to one of the city’s largest church auditoriums. The proceedings, including three separate information sessions, were closed to the public and the press.
Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the DCTA, said the union would not be releasing any information about the number of votes cast or delve into other details until after the process concludes Tuesday, saying it’s the association’s policy to not discuss ongoing procedures.
“We don’t want to sway the vote or in any way influence or pressure anyone,” he said of union members. “It’s their decision.”
Union officials said Friday that a strike requires a two-thirds majority of members who cast votes but did not describe details about how the voting would be conducted. A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have purview.
Denver teachers and special service providers, such as school psychologists, nurses, and speech language pathologists, must be union members to vote, but they can join at any time — including right before voting. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver teachers.
Those who attended Saturday’s information sessions described the feeling in the room as positive and low-key, in contrast to the often volatile atmosphere of the last few contract negotiation sessions with the district officials, which were open to the public and streamed live.
“I think it was optimistic, with a lot of solidarity, but it wasn’t that intense,” said Jason Clymer, a first-year English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School. Several teachers who came to the microphone expressed concern for their students, he said — including a nurse who was worried about delegating authorization to dispense drugs to her students.
Before negotiations ended on Friday, DCTA President Henry Roman said it’s important to remember that a strike vote and even a strike don’t mean the end to bargaining. Rather, those actions send “a big signal” to an employer about how seriously employees take an issue.
Similarly, Cordova said the district would keep talking and negotiating with the union.
“It is critically important that we reach an agreement,” she said.
The earliest that a strike could start is Jan. 28.
Cordova said she would ask Gov. Jared Polis to intervene if the vote is to strike. Gov. Roy Romer helped negotiate an end to the last Denver teachers strike in 1994. That came after the state tried — unsuccessfully — to have a court declare the strike illegal.
Cordova said that while she disagrees with a strike she can understand why teachers would reach that decision. She said no corrective action would be taken against any teacher engaged in a legal job action.
“We will not allow for any kind of bad behavior on the part of our leadership teams,” Cordova said. “The most important thing we can do is create the right culture for our kids to learn.”
Kristin Lacario, an English as a second language teacher at McMeen Elementary School, said her decision to support a strike was challenging given the potential significant impact on families. More than eight in 10 families at the school qualify for government-subsidized lunches — a proxy for poverty — and 37 different languages are spoken there.
But Lacario — who as a senior team lead also coaches and evaluates teachers — said she also has seen the toll the ProComp system can take on teachers. Teachers’ bonuses took a big hit last year when the school narrowly missed a higher rating in the district system, she said.
“Why were they not willing to put forth that little extra bit?” Lacario said. “To me it seems like a social justice issue, too, in the sense that the people on the ground, day after day, serving our kids in our community … why are we not being compensated in accordance with that?”