Strike vote hits home: How Denver teachers explain looming walk-out to students

“I told them, ‘When I think of striking, I don’t think of myself. I think of you.’”

Teachers at Denver's South High School, all of whom voted to strike, posed outside the school on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 (Photo by Alex Burness)

Rebecca Basgal, who’d been up the night before battling anxiety, promised herself she wouldn’t let her students see how worried she was about the impending teachers strike.

“So, of course, as soon I walked in on Monday, the kids said, ‘Ms. Basgal, What’s wrong with you?’” she said.

Basgal is a freshman-level math teacher at South High School who voted this week in favor of a strike, the start date of which is unclear for now. Union leaders say 93 percent of their members approved the strike against Denver Public Schools.

Basgal explained to her students, through tears, why she and many of the other roughly 6,000 DPS staffers voted to strike.

“I told them, ‘When I think of striking, I don’t think of myself. I think of you,’” she said. “I told my kids that I worry about them on the weekends, that that’s how I’ll feel during the strike, and that’s how I’ll feel when I eventually have to leave Denver because I can’t afford to live here.”

The teachers who are prepared to strike want higher pay and an updated compensation schedule. In negotiations leading up to Tuesday’s strike vote, the district — led by Superintendent Susana Cordova, who’s held the job for just two weeks — offered to bump teacher pay by $20 million, according to Chalkbeat Colorado, which reported the teachers felt the offer was inadequate.

Interviews with more than a dozen DPS teachers and staff since the strike vote indicate they’re taking a variety of approaches in broaching the topic with students.

Most found the conversation unavoidable, and some said they went out of their way to be open with their students about it. Some have made a point not to talk about it. Several have used the moment to educate students about labor issues.

“I’ve been really transparent and honest with the kids, but I think it’s very anxiety-provoking for them,” said Lindsey Rutledge, a DPS school psychologist. “They have a lot of questions: What’s this mean? What’s going to happen? Are (substitute teachers) going to be able to grade us? Will we still graduate?”

The topic, and the economic issues underlying the strike push, make Rutledge anxious, too.

“I’m worried about paying my doctor’s bill,” she said. “And it’s really hard to be open and in-the-moment with (students) about that.”

Nearly every teacher interviewed for this story said they’ve been telling their students to show up for school if and when the strike happens. But several teachers noted they understand that it’s not much of a choice for a lot of students — particularly those who rely on free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch, or students who require special services.

State Rep. Bri Buentello, a Democrat from Pueblo and a special education teacher by training, participated in a teachers strike in that city in 2017. And she said voting to strike was a particularly agonizing decision because of the high needs of her special-ed students, and her desire not to let them down.

“Strikes are brutal. They’re ugly,” said Buentello, who’s also the mother of a child with special needs. “But they’re absolutely necessary sometimes.”

Buentello, fighting tears, added, “Nobody cares about kids more than teachers, and the fact that administrators and state governments continue to put us as the bottom factor in the education process is nothing less than disgusting.”

She didn’t phrase it that way to her students, but, she said, they could tell things were off in the classroom: “My students could look around the building and see the ceiling leaking … and that we had no climate control, and the classroom would top 85 degrees in August and be 58 degrees in the winter. Kids understood, ‘Ms. Buentello’s room doesn’t have a whiteboard. Ms. Buentello’s room is freezing.’ They got it.”

In Denver, several South High School educators said that, similarly, their students notice the high rate of teacher turnover. Sean Davis, who’s a case manager for more than two dozen kids with special needs, said he knows some students who’ve had four case managers in four years.

Hayley Breden, who teaches U.S. history, said she’s heard from DPS students who say they want to come back to the district and work as teachers someday. Breden said it saddens her to know that dream won’t be economically feasible for some, unless compensation — starting salary is $39,851, according to the district — dramatically improves.

Breden’s been teaching her students about labor laws and worker activism as part of her history curriculum. Lately she has worked the labor dispute between the Denver district and the union into her teaching.

“I think it’s important for students to know a strike is not about people all of a sudden deciding to be unhappy. It’s something planned, and it’s something with a lot of history in this country,” Breden said. “I want them to understand the historical context of what’s going on now.”

Robin Pigford teaches 4th and 5th grades at Steele Elementary and says the strike vote offered a teachable moment.

“I told them that adults disagree sometimes, and that right now the adults are disagreeing. I told them one way I can express how I disagree is that I can participate in a strike,” Pigford said.

Her students earlier this year studied social-movement leaders in history, including the suffragettes. Pigford said her students seem to understand why teachers now feel inclined to protest. “You guys go on strike to make a change,” Pigford said one 4th-grader told her.

Another DPS teacher, East High School’s Michael Hernandez, said the current union push is applicable to his social studies course because, among other things, it highlights the political reality that a staff member’s social standing can change depending on how he or she  votes.

“What I said was, ‘If you chose not to participate in a strike, clearly, it would impact your status among faculty and probably impact your roles in various environments,” said Hernandez.

But he added that he hasn’t felt comfortable lobbying his students to support the union.

“I want them to come to their subjective interpretation on their own,” he said. “I just don’t feel its my place to try to convince them of anything.”

Lena Novins-Montague contributed to this report