Published 11:37 AM EST Feb 11, 2019
DENVER – Teachers from Denver Public Schools stood on the sidewalk outside South High School Monday morning to demand better pay, kicking off the 207-school district's first strike in 25 years.
Thousands of teachers walked off the job Monday after failing to reach an agreement with administrators over salaries and bonuses – the latest in a year of teacher strikes across the nation.
Teachers "felt we had to use the last tool in our tool chest" after 15 months of negotiating with the district, said Rob Gould, a representative of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which bargains for 5,635 educators. The two sides met Saturday in a last-ditch effort to come to an agreement but were unable to resolve their differences. The union left negotiations, declaring the strike would happen Monday.
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Negotiations will resume Tuesday following a day of teachers' picketing at their schools, Gould said.
"If they don't pay us, shut it down," some chanted at South High School Monday. "What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!"
As students trickled into the Denver school Monday morning, some stopped to take videos of their teachers. Later, hundreds of South High School students walked out to join their teachers on pickeet lines.
Though schools are staffed by substitutes and administrators, the strike will significantly disrupt operations at the 207-school district, with its 90,000 students, administrators acknowledged. Early-childhood classrooms are closed, leaving about 5,000 preschoolers at home.
“It’s not going to look like a typical school. We want to be honest about that," Superintendent Susana Cordova said.
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How will a strike look?
It's unclear exactly how the strike will affect schools and for how long.
Administrators prepared lesson plans and secured substitutes, and they plan to have schools open for at least the first few days of a strike. If the strike lingers on, they might run out of subs and fill-ins.
Some parents plan to keep their kids home in an effort to force the district to compromise faster.
Denver's voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, and that may make many parents unwilling to cross the picket lines with their kids.
What does this mean for parents?
For many parents, a strike won't make a big difference, at least initially. Though administrators said schools won't operate as normal, they are open.
That means kids will be expected to attend classes, and meals will be served. After-school activities will run on a school-by-school basis.
The approximately 5,000 preschool kids aren't able to attend because the district couldn't quickly meet state-mandated standards for background checks and qualifications for subs in early-childhood classrooms.
What does this mean for students?
Except for preschoolers, students are expected to attend classes, even if their normal teachers aren't working.
Most meal programs will still operate. Nearly 70 percent of DPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Why are teachers striking?
Denver's teachers are frustrated by what they see as chronic underfunding of public education in Colorado, along with uncertainty in their salaries.
School administrators tried to help increase pay for some teachers by creating bonuses for high performance, but the union wants to see all teachers get base raises and cost-of-living increases.
A big part of teachers' frustration is with the system known as "ProComp," which rolled out in 2005. ProComp was supposed to help the best teachers earn more money for helping students achieve high test scores or working in troubled schools.
A starting teacher in Denver earns $43,255 a year. The district offered to raise that to $45,500, but teachers want $45,800. ProComp bonuses can add up to $7,000 to a teacher's paycheck.
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DPS administrators say it's important to pay teachers well. Still, they tout the bonus system as the best way to reward teachers.
Gould said Monday the bonuses "have not been helpful" with retaining teachers.
Teachers won't be paid during the strike, and other unions are setting up food banks to help.
What's the district's response?
The district argues the bonus system rewards the best teachers when surplus taxpayer money is limited.
School funding in Colorado is set by legislators, who are limited in how much they can increase the state budget annually. In fall 2018, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have raised taxes on people earning more than $150,000 annually, dedicating the extra money to schools across the state. The measure easily passed in Denver but failed because voters outside the metro area opposed it.
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District officials say each day of a strike will cost about $400,000. They say it's important to pay teachers well but tout the bonus system as the best way to reward teachers who are either highly effective or who volunteer to work in the lowest-performing schools.
How far apart are the sides in negotiations?
Not far, in the context of the overall budget of about $958 million: about $8 million, Cordova said last week. State officials had urged the two sides to reach a deal before Monday morning.
"A strike is an effort of last resort, and one where the ramifications are immense, unpredictable and costly," the Department of Labor and Employment said in a letter to the district superintendent last week, urging a resolution. "Additional costs will be inflicted upon Denver families should schools not be able to offer full services, and teachers going without wages will also bear the cost burdens of a strike in ways that are difficult to calculate."
Aren’t teachers striking all over the country these days?
Teachers have picketed across the U.S., dating back to February 2018. There have been walkouts and demonstrations in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado and Washington state, and most recently in Los Angeles.
The LA strike lasted six days in January and threw the city into chaos as many parents kept their kids home and teachers picketed schools.
The strike was resolved by a deal for a 6 percent raise, a decrease in class sizes, and additional support staff, including librarians and counselors.
The strikes could continue: Teachers in Oakland, California, could walk out this month.
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