Updated at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Teachers in Colorado’s largest school district are preparing to strike on Monday after Gov. Jared Polis announced he would not intervene in a pay dispute between the Denver school district and the teachers union.
Even before Polis revealed his decision publicly Wednesday, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association tweeted: “February 11th, We strike for our students.”
Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova reiterated that the district will keep as many schools open as possible in the event of a strike, but said about 5,000 preschool students, the majority of them from low-income families, would have to stay home because it would be harder to find substitute teachers due to stricter state regulations on preschool.
This would be the first strike by Denver teachers in 25 years. It comes amid a national wave of teacher activism that has seen educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and most recently Los Angeles walk off the job to demand higher wages and better working conditions.
In Denver, teachers are also driven by pent-up frustration with a pay-for-performance system they feel has failed to deliver on its promises, as well as with the broad swath of education reform policies that system represents.
But before teachers take to the picket lines, the two sides are tentatively scheduled to return to the bargaining table Friday to see if there is any way to bridge what Polis cast as “small, limited differences.” Legally, Denver teachers could have started their strike Thursday, but by announcing a Monday start date, the union leaves room for more negotiations, which Polis said represents an “11th-hour opportunity” to reach a deal.
“The differences between the two sides are minor, and they will be bridged in a contract,” Polis said, standing between two white boards that laid out the areas of consensus and dispute in the district and union proposals. “The question is, can that contract be delivered before a strike?”
Rob Gould, a Denver teacher and the union’s lead negotiator, said he agrees the two sides can bridge their differences, “but the district has to be willing to bridge them.”
“We wanted to give the district one last effort to meet the needs of our teachers,” he said of the brief window before a strike starts.
Asked whether the district would put more money on the table, Cordova pledged to “continue working on what we can do,” adding that she hopes the union does the same. She expressed frustration that the union did not offer counterproposals during the last two negotiating sessions.
Negotiating, she said, involves “trading proposals back and forth. We think that’s really important. That’s how we’ll get closer and closer together.”
Denver Public Schools and the teachers union have been negotiating the terms of the ProComp agreement, which governs bonuses and incentives that teachers earn on top of their base pay, for 15 months. The two sides are separated not just by several million dollars but by deep philosophical disagreements about how teachers should be paid.
The union wants less money to go into bonuses and more money to go toward base pay. The district has offered to put more money into teacher compensation and create more stability in the bonus system, but it has held firm on offering larger bonuses to teachers at high-poverty schools and certain schools deemed “highest priority.”
Each side believes their proposal will do more to keep good teachers at the challenging schools where they are needed most.
Standing on the steps of the Capitol in the swirling snow at a union press conference, second-grade teacher Septima Bruce said she is “sick and tired” of watching students lose good teachers who are driven out of the district by unpredictable pay.
“We deserve better,” said Bruce, who teaches at Hallett Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver. “We demand better. We will strike until we receive better.”
Polis stressed repeatedly that teachers need to feel valued and rewarded by whatever deal is reached, a sentiment also expressed by Joe Barela, head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, whom Polis said ultimately made the decision not to intervene at this time.
“We want to get to a point where both sides feel happy and teachers feel rewarded and like they were listened to,” Barela said.
Barela said the structural problem of keeping teachers in challenging schools, where turnover is high and many teachers are just starting their careers, extends beyond the scope of these negotiations and will take more time to solve.
He said the district and the union seem so close that he feared outside intervention would “insert a wedge” and cause the two sides to dig in or move further apart.
Earlier this week, Barela called the last attempt at bargaining “political theater.” On Wednesday, he said he hoped to see more fruitful conversations going forward.
State labor officials or Polis could still change their minds and intervene if a strike goes on for too long or if negotiations don’t seem to be in good faith. Intervention could range from mediation or fact-finding all the way to binding arbitration, which Barela called a “last resort.”
If teachers do strike, Cordova acknowledged the situation for students will not be “normal.”
“It’s never normal when you go into school and your teachers aren’t there,” she said. “When we have large numbers of substitutes, it never feels normal. Obviously, there will be disruptions. If we have teachers on a picket line, that’s a disruption in terms of how kids even enter into a building.”
For kindergarten through 12th-grade classes, the district has been recruiting substitute teachers to fill in, and delivering to schools boxes of lesson plans for them to teach.
Some of those substitutes will likely be employees of the district’s central office, who have been ordered to deploy to schools to fill both instructional and non-instructional roles. Employees who refuse could face corrective action, which could theoretically include being fired.
Union organizers had previously urged parents to send their children to school in the event of a strike to force the district to close schools to underscore the value of teachers’ labor. If certain staffing ratios cannot be maintained or safety issues arise, schools may have to close.
On Wednesday, union President Henry Roman told parents to check with their children’s schools and make the decision “they believe to be in the best interest and well-being of their children.”
Gould, the union negotiator, said he plans to send his own children to school, but that he’s concerned about the potential for high ratios of children to adults and lack of structured activity.
“If it gets to that point, we hope they do close schools,” he said.