Denver Teachers' Strike: Union Frustrated by Governor Polis's Actions

Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association negotiating team at a January gathering.
Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association negotiating team at a January gathering.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis has waded into the conflict between Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union, whose members overwhelmingly voted to authorize what would be the first strike against the district in a quarter-century. And DCTA leadership isn't happy.

Polis's action comes by way of a February 4 letter sent by Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Director Joe Barela to both sides in the dispute. The document is accessible below in its entirety, but here's a key passage: "It’s the Governor’s and CDLE’s strong desire to see these issues addressed and good faith efforts resumed to get to an agreement prior to his decision.... To that end, the Governor is asking for members of each party to meet with him early this week to discuss the path forward."

That was music to the ears of the folks at DPS, who'd asked for Polis to step in after 93 percent of DCTA voters gave the nod to a walkout last month. The district's statement reads: "We appreciate the state’s work. We believe that it would be better for everyone to get to an agreement before a strike. The letter lays out areas where joint work needs to be done to get to an agreement; we would like to engage in productive negotiations to discuss these."

The union's take was far less positive. A release notes that "the state confirmed...the accuracy of DCTA’s cost projections for a fair, competitive and transparent salary schedule for Denver teachers. The state’s memo to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools also acknowledged that a basic philosophy on how teachers and special service providers should be compensated is at the heart of the dispute. However, the state’s assertion that it was 'in a better place' to find a resolution is misguided."

Added DCTA president Henry Roman: "Denver teachers do not want the state to intervene in a strike because state officials cannot appreciate the full measure of concerns we have with the way DPS pays its teachers and SSP’s. [The acronym stands for Specialized Service Provider.] Five years of studies and negotiations with the district have brought us to this point where teachers can only accept a real proposal that reverses our massive teacher turnover to neighboring districts."

click to enlarge Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Director Joe Barela. - AURORACHAMBER.ORG
Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Director Joe Barela.
Barela was among the first round of cabinet members appointed by Polis. According to the announcement from the governor's transition team, "Joe brings more than 25 years of workforce management leadership to the DOL, including working with Arapahoe and Douglas counties, the State of Colorado and most recently with Skillful — an Initiative of the Markle Foundation."

In his letter, Barela writes that "while much of the public focus in this contract dispute has been on teacher salary levels, upon closer examination it has been our observation that most of the points of contention are predicated on philosophy disagreements other than teacher pay. These include opportunities for professional development and career advancement, as well as incentives for working in disadvantaged or underperforming schools, and other workplace-related issues. Moving negotiations forward seems highly unlikely until both parties can get to a common starting point on financial numbers, resolve ideological divides on how to serve our highest risk children in both title 1 schools as well as the top 30 poverty schools, and to agree on steps and lanes with guardrails in the district's pay schedule."

Barela emphasizes that "we do not believe that a successful contract can be reached with the current lack of meaningful dialogue and negotiations. Last Thursday night’s negotiation" — during which the DCTA contingent dramatically left the session — "turned into political theater at its worst, not meaningful negotiations. This trend is very troublesome and weighs heavily on the state’s decision to intervene or not. It is clearly in the state’s interest to ensure the bargaining process is conducted with integrity and effectiveness, and we are currently concerned that is not happening."

Equally troubling to Barela, he allows, is "a lack of shared mutual understanding of the facts and costs of the competing proposals." The letter is accompanied by an analysis of the proposals by Colorado's Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

The document maintains that "the Governor supports workers' rights, including their right to strike." But Roman isn't convinced.

"Every day the state delays its decision on whether or not to intervene is another day our teachers are denied their right to strike," he posits. "That is the only remaining tool at our disposal to fix the entire pay system that is hurting Denver students and driving down our competitiveness to attract and retain quality teachers."

Oh, yeah: In recent days, the DCTA's Facebook page shared this Polis post from last May:

The text the DCTA appended to the item recalls that "Candidate Jared Polis stood with striking teachers last spring. We hope Governor Polis supports Denver educators’ right to strike now."

There's been no announcement about when district and union reps will meet with the governor. But Polis and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment have until Monday, February 11, to determine whether they'll block a strike or allow one to move ahead.

Click to read the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment letter to Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.