Teachers Air Grievances at First School Board Meeting After Strike Vote

Teachers and their supporters took over the Emily Griffith High School building to let the school board know they're not happy.
Teachers and their supporters took over the Emily Griffith High School building to let the school board know they're not happy. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
School board meetings are usually more procedural than confrontational. But the drama was rich at Thursday's first Denver School Board meeting since teachers voted to strike on January 19 and 22.

Teachers, parents and concerned residents packed a meeting room at Emily Griffith High School, spilling over into an adjacent room with three projectors that were live-streaming the public-comment period of the meeting. Those who spoke let school board members and the district know just how much they support Denver teachers.

"I urge leaders at the state level to not intervene. ... This is not a state issue; this is a local workers' issue," said mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón, referring to the possibility that Colorado's Department of Labor and Employment could intervene in the dispute between the union and district. (Governor Polis says he is still deciding whether the state will intervene.)

The union and district had been negotiating since 2017 to a revamp the pay-for-performance teacher compensation system DPS uses, known as ProComp. The union and district both agreed on a more transparent salary structure that adds money into base salaries. But they disagreed over how much money should be added and how much teachers should receive in incentives for working at high-poverty schools.

School board members spoke before the public comment period began, some expressing solidarity with teachers. "I want you to know I’m here with you. We are at a critical point, and I know there’s a lot of uncertainty," said boardmember Dr. Carrie Olson, a former teacher herself.

Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Some speakers praised school board members, like Olson, who had attended negotiation sessions, and others ripped into those who hadn't. Speakers also took shots at new superintendent Susana Cordova for not accepting the union salary schedule proposal.

During the meeting, supporters of teachers formed a picket line outside Emily Griffith High School. As protesters marched up and down the sidewalk, speakers invited to the event by Industrial Areas Foundation of Colorado, a consortium of unions, religious institutions and community activists, spoke about standing in solidarity with teachers.

"I am here today to ask Governor Polis to respect the right of teachers to strike," said Colorado Senator Julie Gonzales.

Other politicians agreed. "I also want to encourage the governor to not intervene. Let the process take its course," said Denver City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega.

Teachers also chimed in. "We and our students are worth that extra 1 percent," said Rebecka Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith High School and a member of the union negotiation team. (The difference between the proposed budgets of each side, about $8 million, is less than 1 percent of the district's budget.) The district is requesting that the state stay out of the matter, a process that would delay a strike until sometime in mid- to early February.

The district has also been dealing with the fallout from a letter that appeared online Thursday notifying teachers who are in the U.S. on work visas and planning on striking that the DPS would report them to the State Department and immigration officials. The district quickly rescinded the letter, saying it should have never been released. 
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.