For the first time in 25 years, Denver teachers are fed up enough to walk out.
Last week, 93 percent of Denver Classroom Teachers Association members who voted supported going on strike. The vote came after teacher pay negotiations between the teachers union and the school district broke down Jan. 18, leaving the teachers without a contract that governs the district’s complicated salary-and-bonus system.
The day after the strike vote, Denver Public Schools asked state labor officials to intervene and try to broker a deal between the two sides. That request put the strike on hold. The union has since filed a response asking the state to stay out of it.
Gov. Jared Polis has until Feb. 11 to decide whether to get involved. Teachers cannot legally strike while a decision is pending.
While the district and the union wait for the answer, their negotiators are returning to the bargaining table. The two sides are set to meet Thursday at 5 p.m.
How did we get here and what happens next? This Q&A is meant to answer those questions.
Ninety-three percent favoring a strike is a landslide. How many teachers voted?
It’s unclear. The strike vote was an internal union matter, and the union has not released the numbers. Leaders did say the election was conducted electronically by a third party.
Is it certain the teachers will go on strike?
No. A strike could be averted if the union and the district reach a deal.
If it’s not averted, when would a strike start?
It depends on how quickly Polis makes a decision about whether to intervene — and what he ultimately decides. If the state intervenes, that could delay a strike by up to 180 days as a mediator or fact-finder works with the two sides to reach an agreement.
If the state does not act, teachers could strike immediately.
One important note: Polis could stay out of it for now but choose to intervene later.
Is it just teachers who are going on strike?
No. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association represents teachers and “specialized service providers,” which include school nurses, counselors, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, and others. Union members are often referred to collectively as “educators.” In all, the union represents about 5,600 Denver educators.
But not all educators are members of the union. Before the strike vote, the union president said 64 percent of district educators were members. It’s likely higher now. Educators can choose whether or not to strike, regardless of their union membership.
Would schools be closed during a strike?
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova has said schools will remain open if teachers walk out. The district has been recruiting substitute teachers to fill in, as well as delivering to schools boxes of lesson plans for the subs to teach.
But there have also been signs that some schools could close. An internal letter from Cordova to the district’s central office employees says they are expected to deploy to schools to work as substitute teachers or in non-instructional roles unless they face “extenuating circumstances.” Those circumstances could include caring for a child “who is also a DPS student whose school was authorized to close by the superintendent.”
There is no set student-to-teacher ratio that schools must maintain, either by state law or district policy. A district spokesperson said officials will determine whether to close schools on a case-by-case basis: “If we anticipate any risk to student safety based on an inability to provide appropriate supervision, we will close the school or make the determination to offer meals only.”
Even if schools are open, should families send their children or keep them home?
The answer to this question is likely a personal one. Working parents will have to weigh whether they can afford to take time off to stay home with their children or find child care. Some families depend on school to provide meals, mental health support, or nursing care to their children.
District officials have promised that academic learning in schools will continue during a strike, and they have assured families that students won’t be watching movies all day.
The teachers union is encouraging families to send their children to school — but for a different reason. “We encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”
The document added, “One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators.”
What about innovation schools and charter schools?
Innovation schools are run by the district, so a strike would affect them. Charter schools are not, so a strike would not affect them. Charter schools would operate normally.
How long would a strike last?
It’s impossible to say. But it is possible to look at history. The last teacher strike in Denver, in 1994, lasted a week. A strike last year by teachers in the southern Colorado city of Pueblo also lasted a week. And a strike earlier this month by Los Angeles teachers lasted about a week, too.
Exactly why are educators ready to strike?
The strike would be an attempt to pressure the district into giving the union what it wants — a new pay structure and more money for teacher salaries.
Denver’s educator pay system, called ProComp, allows teachers and specialized service providers to earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary for things like working in a hard-to-fill position or a high-poverty school.
Who qualifies for which bonuses and the size of those bonuses can change from year to year. Educators say that make their pay unpredictable, and that by funneling lots of money into incentives instead of base pay, ProComp has diminished their long-term earning potential. The union wants a system that invests more money into base salaries and less into bonuses.
Why can’t the two sides agree?
The disagreement is part philosophical and part financial.
The philosophical disagreement is about whether the bonuses and incentives are valuable. Voters agreed to fund them by approving a tax increase in 2005 — so nixing them would mean forfeiting about $33 million in tax money this year. That’s only a portion of the more than $400 million the district spends on teacher pay, but neither side wants to lose it.
Instead, the union wants to shrink the size and number of the bonuses and incentives, while the district is pushing to keep certain incentives more robust.
For instance, the district wants to offer a $2,500 bonus to educators who work at a high-poverty school as a way to ensure vulnerable students have good teachers. The union’s proposal calls for that same incentive to be $1,750, with the difference going to base pay.
The two sides also disagree on how much of the district’s $1 billion budget should be spent on educator compensation. Both agree it should be more — but they differ in how much more.
When negotiations broke down on Jan. 18, about $8.5 million separated the cost of the union and district proposals on their face. Different analyses have yielded larger cost differences.
District officials have so far proposed investing an additional $20 million into teacher pay, partly by promising cuts to central administration. Union leaders want to continue to negotiate for more than that. The cost of the union’s proposal is about $28 million.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.