Update 2/10/2019: After a last-ditch bargaining session ended on Saturday, February 9 without a resolution, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) announced a strike would begin on Monday, February 11.  Governor Jared Polis announced on Wednesday, February 6 that the state would not intervene in the pay dispute between teachers and Denver Public Schools. Another bargaining session between DCTA and DPS is scheduled for Tuesday, February 12. 

After months of unsuccessful bargaining between Denver Public Schools (DPS) and union negotiators came to a close, teachers in the Mile High City will strike beginning Monday, February 11.  The union, DCTA, walked away from the negotiating table on Saturday, February 9 after expressing dismay over the latest proposal from DPS.  Saturday’s bargaining session came after Governor Jared Polis announced on February 6 that the state would not get involved in the dispute.

How Colorado’s largest school district arrived at such a precarious stalemate is complicated, but the most simple explanation is this: Teachers in Denver want to be paid more, and they want a traditional salary structure similar to what is used in school districts across the state and country.

Beyond that, there are dozens of factors complicating negotiations and several key stakeholders involved including teachers, district officials, union representatives, and parents—all of whom we spoke with in order to determine why Denver teachers will strike for the first time in 25 years.

How Did We Get Here?

Unlike most other school districts across the country, DPS uses a professional compensation system known as “ProComp,” which provides bonus incentives for teachers beyond their base salary. Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer at DPS, describes it as a “choose your own adventure” system with which teachers can earn more money for things like working in hard-to-staff positions or in high-performing schools.

However, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA, the union representing the teachers), argues that ProComp makes it difficult for teachers to know how much money they’re actually making each year. “It’s largely comprised of one-time incentives, many of which are outside of the teachers’ control,” says Henry Roman, DCTA president. “Educators have to largely depend on variable pay, which in some cases decreases over time.”

The ProComp system expired on Friday, January 18, which is why DPS and the union came the bargaining table. Teachers want a salary structure that features “steps” and “lanes”—steps representing years of experience and lanes representing level of education. For a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience, for instance, it should be easy to determine what his or her salary is. Under the ProComp system, the teachers say they have no idea what to expect.

“It’s so hard for anyone to read our pay stubs,” says Andrea Leggett, physical education teacher at the Denver Center of International Studies at Montbello.  

Beyond the ProComp system, the union is also arguing for a greater share of the district’s operating budget to be devoted to base salary. DCTA wants an additional $27.5 million, while DPS countered with about $20 million, plus an additional $6 million in “transitional costs” involved in updating the salary structure. 

According to Roman, the union wants enough funding so that teacher salaries in the district start at $45,000 and that the most veteran teachers are capable of earning a base salary of at least $100,000—requests to which the district has been receptive. According to a DPS spokesperson, the average teacher pay this year is $58,892 for regular classroom teachers and $60,228 for those teaching children with special needs, though Roman argues those figures are misleading because some teachers have access to incentives that others don’t. Moreover, Roman says, the union is focused on career earnings for the teachers—what they’ll earn over decades opposed to what they stand to bring home next year.

The district understands that teachers deserve to be paid more. “There are a lot of national conversations about teacher compensation, and we totally support that,” Ferrandino says. “The cost of living in Denver is going up. And it’s going up faster than we can increase teacher compensation because our funding from the state is not going up to keep pace with that.”

The extent to which the district can provide more funding for teacher salaries has been a point of contention throughout the bargaining process. Union leaders and teachers have suggested that DPS could afford to increase pay, especially if they cut exorbitant costs from central administrative staffing throughout the district. According to Chalkbeat, half of DPS schools are charter schools, which often have higher administrative costs, and some teachers have suggested this model is unfair to traditional district-run schools.

Voters in Colorado also had an opportunity to approve funding for schools in November, but soundly rejected Amendment 73, which would have provided $1.6 billion in tax revenue for public education in Colorado and would have helped bolster teacher salaries.

When Will the Strike Actually Happen?

The soonest teachers were authorized to strike was Monday, January 28. However, DPS appealed to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and the strike was postponed while the state decided whether or not to intervene in the pay dispute. After the most recent round of bargaining fell apart, the union announced the strike will begin February 11. 

“We’re always willing to talk. We’re not going to shut off that conversation,” Ferrandino says. “The only way we can end the strike is to talk.” Likewise, Roman had hoped a deal would be reached before teachers leave the classroom indefinitely. “The idea is to resolve this issue before we are actually on strike,” he said. “The best possible outcome would be to continue to have conversations.”

Another round of negotiations is set for Tuesday, February 12.

Will Schools Stay Open During the Strike?

Susana Cordova, the recently hired superintendent of DPS, has vowed to keep schools open in the event of a strike. However, DPS employs roughly 5,000 teachers and filling all of those positions with qualified substitutes would be a daunting task. According to Ferrandino, the district’s plan would be to hire as many subs as possible and then utilize administration officials who are also licensed teachers.

However, many DPS teachers doubt the district has the capacity to fill the positions. According to Leggett, DPS already struggles when teachers are out. “It is a daily occurrence in schools across the district,” she says, “that teachers give up plan and prep time to cover a class when a colleague is out.”

It’s unclear whether substitute teachers would be willing to fill in during the strike, but rumors have circulated among teachers that subs could earn more than $200 per day during the strike should they choose to fill in.

Should Parents Still Send Their Kids to School?

Families are facing difficult decisions about whether or not to send their children across the picket line. For some local children, school is where they receive meals and critical resources. The district has asked parents to send kids to school.

“There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty for families. Especially with kids with special needs,” Ferrandino says. “We want to keep schools open because it’s important to us that kids have a safe place during the day to go. There are a lot of kids who get meals—both breakfast and lunch—at school. We want to make sure that is available.”  

But many families are undecided. Some parents who spoke to 5280 say they would not be sending their kids to school because it may not be safe, and they doubt much learning will be happening during the days of the strike. Roman, from the teachers union, says he’s not advising parents to send children to schools. “It’s better if they don’t,” he says. “What happens is if you don’t have the adults to supervise, then you’re left with a skeleton crew at best and that’s what happened [during the last strike] in 1994.”  

Matt Lemme, who has two children in the DPS system and supports the teachers, says his kids will going to school in the event of the strike. “If the district thinks they can do the job without the teachers, then I want to see them try,” he says. “By not sending my kids, I think that’s just playing into the district’s hands.”

Most teachers with whom 5280 spoke recommended parents still send their kids to school, especially because many families don’t have the privilege of keeping their kids at home during the work week.

This is a developing story, and will be updated as more information becomes available. Last updated: 4 p.m. on Sunday, February 10.

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.