In less than a week, Denver teachers could go on strike for the first time in 25 years.
On Wednesday, February 6, Colorado's Department of Labor and Employment announced that it will not intervene in the dispute between the teachers' union and Denver Public Schools. That decision means teachers can go on strike starting as early as Monday, February 11.
Following the announcement by the department's executive director, Joe Barela, Governor Jared Polis expressed his support for the decision and said that he believes the union and the district, the party that asked for state intervention, are separated only by minor differences.
"The parties are very close to reaching an agreement. ... I’ve also received assurances from both sides that negotiations will commence either tomorrow or Friday," Polis said at a press conference announcing the decision.
If the two sides are unable to come to an agreement between now and February 11, and teachers go on strike for the first time since 1994, the district will attempt to keep schools open with the use of substitute teachers. But as Polis pointed out, keeping schools open during a strike would cost the district over $400,000 per day.
The Denver Classroom Teachers Association — the teachers' union — applauded the state's decision not to intervene. "The governor understands our position that only [the district] can mend its relationship with its teachers and special service providers, and that state intervention could not make a difference in a dispute that has dragged on for five years," said president Henry Roman in a statement. The union has already announced that teachers will begin striking on February 11; in late January, 93 percent of union members voted in favor of going on strike.
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In response to the governor's decision, DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova announced that Denver's pre-schools would not be open in the event of a strike, owing to particular licensing and training requirements needed for early childhood educators. Cordova also conceded that school will be different without regular teachers in the classroom. "School will not look and feel the same way," she said during a press conference.
Getting to an agreement in the coming days will not be easy. Although Polis said the differences are minor, the two sides are separated by an approximately $8 million difference in their annual budget proposals for teacher compensation. Additionally, the district still wants to prioritize incentives for teachers working at low-performing and high-poverty schools, while the union wants to move much of this incentive money into base salaries.
Since November 2017, the two sides have been negotiating over ProComp, a pay-for-performance compensation system adopted in 2005 that was designed to attract and retain excellent teachers at Denver's public schools. In recent years, though, teachers have soured on the compensation philosophy and are now working to get a more straightforward salary schedule that revolves less around ProComp incentives and bonuses and more around a robust base salary. The district has already agreed on these points, but differences about specifics remain after multiple bargaining sessions in January and earlier this month failed to bridge these gaps.
If the state had decided to intervene, it would have had up to 180 days to work toward a solution. During that time, teachers would have been unable to go on strike. Although it's bowed out for now, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment can still re-enter the fray, intervening at any time it feels that negotiations are no longer happening in good faith.