Denver public school teachers go on strike
Demanding better pay, teachers in 90,000-student system walk out
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