Hundreds of teachers wearing red rallied Wednesday at the Colorado State Capitol as the Denver school district and teachers union prepare to return to the bargaining table.

Among the Denver teachers we interviewed, there was little optimism that the renewed talks would produce a deal.  

“DPS is very stubborn,” said Susan Trahan, a preschool teacher. “It may take a strike for things to change, and it’s time for the world to change.”

Meanwhile, teachers say they are struggling to maintain normalcy as they await word on whether state labor officials and Gov. Jared Polis will intervene in their pay dispute with the district.

“Teachers are not focused on their jobs,” said Sara Penner, an English language acquisition teacher, when asked about the mood in schools. “Our heads are not in the classroom. We feel like we’re in limbo waiting to see if we’ll strike.”

Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association voted to go on strike Jan. 22 after months of negotiations over the ProComp system, which provides bonuses and incentives on top of base salaries, ended without a new agreement.

The two sides are roughly $8.5 million apart on money — more under some analyses — but also have deep philosophical disagreements about how the pay system should be structured, with the union wanting more money into base pay and the district wanting larger bonuses, particularly for teachers at high-poverty schools.

Denver Public Schools quickly asked the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to intervene in the dispute, while the union asked them to keep out. The state has until Feb. 11 to make a decision, though officials could act sooner.

In this tense and uncertain environment, the two sides are resuming negotiations.

In a press release Wednesday, Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova also expressed optimism, even as she framed the problem primarily as one of low state funding.

“I look forward to engaging in the discussion with the DCTA negotiating team, and want to restate my commitment to work arm-in-arm with our educators to fix state funding for education,” Cordova said.

Union members have pushed back against the idea that Denver Public Schools doesn’t have the money to meet their demand to put an additional $28 million into teacher compensation, on top of the $436 million the district currently spends annually. The district has offered to increase funding by more than $20 million, with some of that money coming from cuts to administrative positions.

Penner said she’s recently married and thinking about starting a family, but she can’t afford a home that’s larger than the small apartment she rents now. So she’s thinking about leaving the city of Denver and the district because she doesn’t want a long commute on top of a long work day.

These types of challenges make teachers ready to walk, she said.

“I don’t foresee anything happening,” she said of the new negotiations. “I don’t foresee teachers backing down. This is what we want, and we’re willing to go all the way.”

Michele Luster, an elementary special education teacher, said she and many of her colleagues are worried about their students in the event of a strike, but after 20 years of teaching, she’s seeing her paycheck go down rather than up due to rising health insurance costs.

“We’re ready,” she said.

Adriana Ogaz, a bilingual third grade teacher, said she’s dreamed of being a teacher since she was a little girl, but two years in, she feels disenfranchised and is thinking about leaving the profession.

She appreciates that the district proposal offers significant raises to early-career teachers like her, but the raises for veteran teachers are much more modest compared to the union proposal. That concerns her, as she imagines Denver will be that much more expensive in another decade or two. That’s if she stays at all.

“At this point, everyone is ready to strike,” she said. “We want change, and we want it now.”

Denver teachers rallied at the state Capitol on the eve of renewed negotiations between their union and Denver Public Schools.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ian Dickson/For Chalkbeat