The chant broke out just before 4 p.m. on Friday. It was led by two people wearing bright red shirts, showing solidarity with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
“What do we want?” they shouted.
“Fair pay!” the crowd returned.
“When do we want it?” the pair said.
There were other chants, including “fair pay now,” which rang out of the crowded room at the Denver Public Schools’ Acoma Campus. It was a room that — somehow — held well over 1oo people. The number had grown from about 30 supporters earlier in the day — the room now filled with more educators out of school joining their DCTA colleagues.
The chanting added another layer of sound to the cacophony inside. Educators were eagerly awaiting the return of members of the DCTA, the union representing roughly 5,700 teachers and special service providers in Denver, and representatives from Denver Public Schools. The two groups were expected to return to the mediations following a break earlier on Friday.
Time was running out. At stake: the last day for the two sides to ink out a new ProComp agreement before it expired at midnight. Passed in 2005 by Denver voters, ProComp is essentially a system that uses funds raised through taxes to provide bonuses and salary increases for teachers meeting certain criteria. The two sides disagreed on how much money to add; by 5:30 p.m. Friday, they still hadn’t found a deal.
Once the agreement expires, union members would gather on Saturday to vote on whether to strike. And all signs are pointing toward one taking place. Voting will continue on Tuesday, and results won’t be known until that night at the earliest.
The teachers who attended Friday’s meetings are ready to picket, including second- and third-year teachers.
“It’s very unexpected,” said Claudia Simental, 25, a Spanish teacher at the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. “I’m very nervous…I don’t have the funds to support myself if we have a strike. And we don’t get paid if we have to strike.”
She’s been teaching for two years and wasn’t necessarily expecting to have to “fight” to teach her students. She called the whole situation “frustrating” and feels the district isn’t providing much support.
Alexander Edwards, 25, has been a special education teacher at the Denver Center for International Studies for two years. He’s contacted his student’s parents to let them know what could happen. He said most of them have been supportive.
“I am not nervous,” Edwards said. “I am one of those people that knows, yes, it will hurt short-term, for our students, but it’s going to be better in the long term if we have teachers who are constantly in the building.”
When 34-year-old Branden Lane took a job as a science teacher at Legacy Options High School, the third-year teacher he didn’t think he would end up in this position. But he understands why it’s happening and said the decision to strike was an easy one to make. He thinks his students understand what’s going on as well.
“My students are on board with us,” Lane said. “They’ve all decided that if we strike, they’re striking. And they’re going to walk the picket lines.”
What’s ProComp and why is causing such division?
Teachers believe it’s crucial in helping improve retention rate. They believe the current program focuses too much on providing bonuses instead of adding more money toward teacher’s base pay, which teachers are hoping to increase. They believe it’s too complicated and doesn’t offer a reliable enough pay. They want it simplified.
It’s prompted another catchy slogan for teachers: “Base over bonus.”
Rob Gould, a teacher in a special assignment and DCTA lead negotiator, told reporters on Friday bonuses simply haven’t worked in helping retaining teachers in DPS. He said one in five DPS teachers end up leaving the district every year, usually because it’s too difficult to work there and the pay isn’t great.
“Literally, teachers can go to a surrounding school district and they can make anywhere from seven- to thirteen-thousand more. Just by going down the streets,” Gould said.
Emily Griffith High School teacher Rebecka Hendricks, 33, can testify to how much she struggles, even with a mid-level salary at DPS. She has a master’s degree and a roommate. She’s tried working side gigs like driving Lyft, dropping food off for Postmates and tutoring for extra money.
She doesn’t live in Denver anymore. She said she can’t.
“My parents warned me of this,” Hendricks, who is a member of the bargaining team, said during the meeting. “(They said) ‘You’re not going to be happy’ … When I look at my high school teachers, they were able to afford houses.”
Gould said he believes new Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova has made a better faith effort “than they have ever seen” over the past month.
Still, he feels the district is trying to run the clock out to force the teacher’s hand. Things were pretty tense as Cordova left after one of the evening meetings Friday, leaving her to make a last-second speech about how the work she’s ultimately doing is for the benefit of the teachers. Some of her responses drew jeers and laughs from the audience, which was mostly on the union’s side.
She also reminded everyone she’s in her 10th day in the position. Does she feel like she’s off to a rough start? If she does, she wasn’t necessarily interested in talking to reporters about it.
“I am deeply committed to our teachers here in Denver,” Cordova said to reporters on Friday afternoon. “This is my home. I’ve grown up in the Denver Public Schools, I’m a DPS grad. I started teaching (at DPS) right out of college.”
Her own child will be affected if the teacher’s strike. She has a daughter who’s a senior in high school.
“How we resolve this absolutely is going to make a difference to our entire community. I believe we can get to an agreement,” Cordova said. “If we don’t, our commitment is going to continue to be to live up to our values and I’ve been repeatedly saying good people can share values and have a difference of opinions of how you get to a solution.”