A young strike captain wants to unseat the longtime president of the Denver teachers union

7 min. read
Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, accepts an award on behalf of the union during Denver’s annual Cesar Chavez Day celebration, March 30, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Chalkbeat 

On the heels of a three-day teacher strike that resulted in big changes in how Denver educators are paid, a young teacher who was a leader during the strike is challenging the longtime union president, who helped shepherd the deal.

Henry Roman has been president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association for 10 years. Released full time from his teaching position, Roman has led the organization through a time of controversial reform in Denver Public Schools and shifting fortunes for the union, which saw increased membership and community support in the run-up to the strike.

Tiffany Choi is a French teacher at East High School, the district's biggest school and a union stronghold. Now in her eighth year of teaching, she has lived the reforms firsthand. Choi, who served as a strike captain at East, is also part of a group of younger teachers who want to see the union focus less on internal business and more on social justice.

Denver teachers who belong to the union have until Wednesday to vote for union president and other leadership positions. Such elections happen every two years, but the timing makes this one especially important. Membership in the union has reached 70 percent of the district's more than 5,000 teachers, nurses, psychologists, and others, according to union leaders.

That's a significant jump from the 50-percent membership that plagued the union for years, as it fought against what it saw as disruptive school closures and an erosion of teachers' rights -- even suing the district multiple times, only to have the state Supreme Court rule against it.

The union's swelling ranks give it more influence at a time of transition for the state's largest district. Denver has a new superintendent and is staring down a school board election in November that could change the board's balance of power in the union's favor.

Superintendent Susana Cordova, a former teacher, has already treated the union differently than her predecessor, personally attending every bargaining session this winter. Part of her "entry plan" this spring is to "establish a more productive working relationship" with the union, meaning its leaders could have the superintendent's ear more than they did in the past decade.

In an interview in his second-floor office across the street from the state Capitol, Roman spoke about the unifying effect of the strike, the average 11.7 percent raise teachers will see in their paychecks this fall, and how he hopes to parlay that victory into another one in November.

"The next big challenge for us is the school board election," Roman said.

The board has been controlled for more than a decade by members who support reforms that the union opposes, including closing struggling district-run schools and opening new charter schools. Union-backed candidates have tried and failed every two years to gain a majority of seats, though Roman counts the victory of two such candidates in 2017 as significant progress.

"It does have an impact on the day-to-day lives of our teachers, the kinds of policies they set for the district," Roman said of the board. "That, to us, is so key and so important."

Before he was union president, Roman was an elementary school teacher. For a time, he also worked as a "teacher on special assignment" in the district's central office, helping to train other teachers. Roman said he was always a member of the teachers association, even serving as his building's union representative -- a position he said earned him the nickname, "the Hammer."

But over the years, Roman said the more aggressive approach of his youth has given way to the increasingly strategic style he now uses to negotiate with the district.

"Over time, I learned there are other ways to push," he said. "Conflict is part of this job description. If you let that overtake you, you lose focus on what you are trying to do."

Whoever is the next union president will be in a better position to do that pushing because of changes to the union structure that occurred during his tenure, Roman said. He helped double the number of union staff members who support building representatives, giving each school more attention, and advocated hiring employees with more organizing experience. "Because of that level of work and structure we created, we're in a significantly better place," Roman said.

Roman said he is running for president "as a team" with Rob Gould, a teacher who serves as the union's lead negotiator. Gould's bullish stance during the contract talks made him a hero among the rank-and-file, often eliciting a standing ovation when he entered a room.

Gould is running unopposed for union vice president. He declined to speak with Chalkbeat for this story. Other candidates for union office, as well as current officeholders, either did not return messages or said they were uncomfortable discussing union politics in the press.

Choi agreed to an interview, sitting after school at a student desk in one of the classrooms where she teaches at East High. She started her Denver teaching career at the now-closed Montbello High School when it was being phased out, but she said it was a negative evaluation by an administrator that made her become more active in the union.

"I felt voiceless," Choi said. "I started looking at jobs outside of teaching that year. I came to the realization that I could try another year and see if there was anything I could do to fight back against district policies. If anything, I was like, 'I'm not afraid.' I lost all fear of retribution."

She went to a forum about the community schools model, which calls for providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom. From there, she became involved with a group of young Denver teachers who researched how to apply the model here, an idea they hoped would be embraced by the teachers association.

But Choi said she and the others ended up feeling rebuffed by union leaders, who suggested they tone down the confrontational tack they planned to take with the school board. In late 2016, Choi became a founding member of a group called the Caucus of Today's Teachers that was meant to push the association in a more progressive direction.

"Never tell a millennial 'no,'" Choi said. "They will do the opposite."

In the last union election in 2017, another young teacher in the caucus, Tommie Shimrock, challenged Roman for president. Shimrock narrowly lost by 50 votes, but several other caucus members won seats on the union's board of directors, including Choi.

As a director, Choi counts among her biggest successes advocating for the union to join the Industrial Areas Foundation, a coalition of progressive religious and community groups. The foundation was a key ally in the strike, bringing faith leaders to rallies and bargaining sessions to pressure the superintendent to listen to teachers. It's that kind of grassroots organizing that Choi believes can elect pro-union school board members and stop school closures.

"When we have any news of any possible closure, we have to get everyone there: parents, church leaders, teachers from other schools," Choi said. In the past, she said she felt the union stepped in too late. "We don't always have to be the last ones to know."

Roman said the union expects to announce the election results on Friday.

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

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