Den­ver pub­lic school teach­ers go on strike

De­mand­ing bet­ter pay, teach­ers in 90,000-stu­dent sys­tem walk out

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kelly Ra­gan and Trevor Hughes

DEN­VER – When Jenna Jones told her third-graders why she planned to join a teacher strike Mon­day, sev­eral stu­dents at the pre­dom­i­nately low-in­come school did their best to step up.

Jones told them she can’t af­ford to live in Den­ver on her teacher’s salary. She com­mutes ev­ery day from Cas­tle Rock, about 20 miles south of the city, to McMeen El­e­men­tary School.

One stu­dent left $2 on her desk, she said. A cou­ple of oth­ers tried to give her the Chick-fil-A gift cards they’d earned for per­fect at­ten­dance. She didn’t take them, she said, but she was moved.

De­mand­ing bet­ter pay, Jones and her fel­low Den­ver Pub­lic Schools teach­ers pick­eted on side­walks and ral­lied at the Colorado Capi­tol on Mon­day, kick­ing off the 207-school dis­trict’s first strike in 25 years. The walk­out marked the lat­est in a year of teacher strikes across the na­tion.

More than half of DPS teach­ers – 2,631 of 4,725 – didn’t re­port to school Mon­day, ac­cord­ing to the dis­trict.

Teach­ers “felt we had to use the last tool in our tool chest” af­ter 15 months of ne­go­ti­at­ing with the dis­trict, said Rob Gould, lead ne­go­tia­tor for the Den­ver Class­room Teach­ers As­so­ci­a­tion.

The two sides met Satur­day in a last­ditch ef­fort to come to an agree­ment but were un­able to re­solve their dif­fer­ences. Ne­go­ti­a­tions are sched­uled to re­sume at 10 a.m. Tues­day.

“If they don’t pay us, shut it down,” some chanted at South High School on Mon­day. “What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!”

As stu­dents trick­led into the Den­ver school Mon­day morn­ing, some took videos of their teach­ers. Hun­dreds of South High School stu­dents walked out to join their teach­ers on picket lines.

Stu­dents know teach­ers aren’t get­ting paid enough, se­nior De­jaune Eller­bee said. “When we found out teach­ers were go­ing to strike Mon­day, we knew we wanted to show that we stand in sol­i­dar­ity,” Eller­bee said. “With­out our teach­ers, this world wouldn’t work.”

Though schools are staffed by sub­sti­tutes and ad­min­is­tra­tors, the strike will sig­nif­i­cantly dis­rupt op­er­a­tions at the dis­trict, which has 90,000 stu­dents, ad­min­is­tra­tors ac­knowl­edged. Ear­ly­child­hood class­rooms are closed, leav­ing about 5,000 preschool­ers at home.

Videos shared by East High School stu­dents showed stu­dents crowd­ing the hall­ways, singing, shout­ing and danc­ing while school was in ses­sion.

“It is a prob­lem for our kids to not have their teach­ers in class,” Su­per­in­ten­dent Su­sana Cor­dova said Mon­day at a news con­fer­ence. “Safety is the num­ber one con­cern.”

Cor­dova said she vis­ited about a dozen schools Mon­day morn­ing. When asked about the safety of stu­dents, Cor­dova said she saw a “range of con­di­tions” but didn’t see any class­rooms “where it felt like stu­dents weren’t safe.”

Still, she said, she vis­ited some schools be­fore stu­dents were present, and her vis­its didn’t in­clude East High School.

The dis­trict planned to make de­ci­sions about whether to have class Tues­day on a school-by-school ba­sis, she said.

“To­day was an awak­en­ing for the dis­trict,” said Gould, the union ne­go­tia­tor.

Some par­ents planned to keep their kids home in an ef­fort to force the dis­trict to com­pro­mise faster or in sup­port of the teach­ers’ union.

The Den­ver Pub­lic Li­brary of­fered it­self as a safe space for stu­dents who aren’t go­ing to school this week. Li­brary staff “will of­fer ac­tive and pas­sive pro­grams” to keep stu­dents en­gaged, ac- cord­ing to the li­brary’s Twit­ter ac­count.

The dis­trict’s stu­dent ab­sence pol­icy re­mains un­changed dur­ing the strike, Cor­dova said. If par­ents ap­prove the ab­sence, such as with a note, the stu­dent is marked “ex­cused.” If they don’t, the ab­sence is “un­ex­cused.”

Most meal pro­grams will still op­er­ate. Nearly 70 per­cent of DPS stu­dents qual­ify for free or re­duced-price lunches.

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 costof-liv­ing in­creases.

A big part of teach­ers’ frus­tra­tion is with a 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.

Derek Smith pick­eted Mon­day to sup­port his wife, who is a teacher in the dis­trict. They have a 1-year-old at home, he said. “When she gets old enough to go to school, I hope things will have changed a bit,” Smith said.

DPS ad­min­is­tra­tors say it’s im­por­tant to pay teach­ers well, but they tout the bonus sys­tem as the best way to re­ward teach­ers.

The bonuses “have not been help­ful” in re­tain­ing teach­ers, said Gould, the union ne­go­tia­tor.

“With­out our teach­ers, this world wouldn’t work.” De­jaune Eller­bee Se­nior at South High School

DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP

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