Denver teachers union poll shows strong support for a strike, even among parents

5 min. read
Some Denver teachers are wearing these buttons, provided by the union, at the teacher pay negotiations. (Chalkbeat)

By Chalkbeat 

As negotiations resume Tuesday between the Denver school district and the teachers union, the union has released a poll that shows strong support for its position -- and even for the potential of a strike.

The telephone survey of 600 randomly selected Denver voters found that 82 percent of respondents side with the teachers over the school board on salary negotiations and that 62 percent would support teachers going on strike if there is no resolution by the end of January, the union said in a press release. Parents of Denver Public Schools students, those most affected by a potential strike, reported even higher levels of support.

The union did not release the actual questions asked in the poll. Though the results contrasted public support for teachers and the school board, district administrators like Superintendent Susana Cordova and Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino are negotiating with the union, not the board.

According to a memo from Harstad Strategic Research released by the union, 92 percent of Denver school parents surveyed said teacher pay falls short, 89 percent said they side with teachers, compared to just 7 percent siding with the school board, and 69 percent would support a strike if a deal is not reached.

In a press release on the poll findings, the union further said that 74 percent of respondents had a positive view of teachers, compared to a third who had a positive view of the school board and that "nearly half of the respondents want the board to take a real change of direction."

In 2017, union-supported candidates won two seats on the Denver school board. The other five members largely back the district's current policies. Control of the board hinges on this fall's election, and the union and its supporters are hoping to gain more seats.

Harstad Strategic Research is a national polling firm based in Boulder, Colorado, that mostly works for Democratic candidates. FiveThirtyEight gives the firm a B+ in its pollster rating. The poll was conducted between Jan. 7 and Jan. 10, before the district made its most recent offer.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association reached an agreement on their master contract in 2017. The two sides have now been negotiating for more than a year on the district's pay-for-performance system, ProComp. The deadline for a deal is Friday, and union leaders plan to hold a strike vote Saturday if one is not reached.

If Denver teachers walk, it would be the district's first strike in 25 years.

The timing of the poll release is intended to increase pressure on the district as the deadline approaches. Denver educators have been buoyed by a national wave of teacher activism. The union may also feel it has leverage because Superintendent Susana Cordova just took over on Jan. 7, and a strike would be a less-than-ideal start to her tenure.

Cordova is consistently attending negotiating sessions, in contrast to her predecessor Tom Boasberg, who rarely made appearances. Cordova also has promised to cut central office positions to help pay for teacher raises. At the same time, in an email to parents last week, Cordova said she would ask for state intervention if a deal is not reached and pledged to keep schools open in the event of a strike.

ProComp pays teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position. Many Denver teachers don't like it because it introduces uncertainty into their salaries.

But if the district abandoned the system entirely, it would have to give up tax revenue -- estimated at $33 million next year. That's because Denver voters agreed in 2005 to tax themselves at a higher rate specifically to fund this incentive system, intended to reward teachers for things like working in hard-to-fill positions, increasing their teaching skills, and earning positive evaluations.

The district's most recent offer, made late Friday, would create a maximum base salary of $100,000 -- the union's stated goal for much of the negotiations  -- but it would take 30 years and a doctorate rather than 20 years to get there, as the union wants.

The base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree on the district's schedule as of Jan. 11 would be $45,500. The union's schedule would start at $45,000.

The two sides also disagree on the total amount of money the district should put into raising compensation for teachers, on the size of bonuses and incentives, and how many "steps" and "lanes" there should be, with each step and lane representing an opportunity for more pay. The lanes represent a teacher's education level, and the steps represent a teacher's years of satisfactory evaluations.

A step is based on how many years a teacher has been teaching, and a lane refers to how much education a teacher has.

The district and the union are scheduled to negotiate Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday this week.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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