The clock is ticking on negotiations between Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union. The home page of the DCTA website is dominated by a digital countdown of the days, hours and seconds before a midnight January 18 deadline agreed to by both sides. Reaching zero could trigger the first Denver teachers' strike in a quarter-century.
There are ominous signs that such a work stoppage could be on the way, including the early end to a bargaining session on January 15 and the lack of any such get-together the next day. Negotiations are scheduled to begin again at 9 a.m. this morning (see details below), but when asked if he's confident they'll bear fruit, Corey Kern, the DCTA's deputy executive director, says, "I'm more nervous they won't."
The DCTA's most recent update about the talks hardly glows with optimism. After portraying a statement from new Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova as "extremely misleading," the account follows the line "Here is what we accomplished yesterday" with a single word: "Nothing."
Kern is more politic. "I would say 'long' is a good way to describe the sessions so far," he says. "We've had marathon bargaining sessions since the holiday break, and there's been good dialogue during most of them."
The exception was the 15th, he continues, "when we met until 11 a.m. and then didn't meet for the rest of the day. We ended the morning session by asking them a question very important to our members, which was whether or not they're willing to accept a salary structure that rewards blocks of college credits and professional development units, which is something nearly every other district in the country does. And we didn't meet because they were considering their response."
He admits to being "disappointed it's taken so long to get a yes-or-no answer on that. I think we're pretty far apart on the issue, which is really a philosophical and cultural issue for DPS. We've been experimenting with our compensation issue" — shorthanded as ProComp — "for thirteen or fourteen years. And that gap worries us."
If a strike is called, teachers at many facilities will remain on the job as usual. After all, more than 25 percent of DPS schools are charters, where such educators aren't unionized. Kern confirms a November report in Chalkbeat that the DCTA requested the names and salaries of charter school teachers. But rather than launching an effort to unionize those workers right now, he says, "we're leaving that where it is and focusing on bargaining for teachers in our bargaining unit."
In Kern's view, the potential contrast between charters operating in a business-as-usual manner while employees at other DPS schools are on strike won't lessen the effectiveness of a walkout. But what concerns him about charters "is the accountability piece, because we have public funds going to those schools and they're not held to the same reporting standards as district-run schools. And I think that does factor in to a lot of the problems we're having. When the district gets an increase in funding from the state, some of it goes to charter schools, but we're not sure how much and how it's spent. That adds clouds to the discussion."
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More immediately, DCTA members are coming to terms with the increasing odds of a strike and how it might affect their bank accounts. "That's something you need to think about, especially when you're talking about workers as underpaid as teachers are in Colorado," Kern allows. "But the 300-plus teachers who've been showing up to our bargaining sessions and folks who we've been communicating with feel we have to do this for the students. A lot of students are getting first-year teachers every year, and at some point, we have to say, 'Enough is enough' — and that's where teachers are now. They're tired of the churn, tired of great, experienced teachers leaving the district and the profession."
According to Kern, "turnover in DPS is the worst in the state. The last numbers I saw put it at right around the 20 percent number of teachers we lose in the district every year. A lot of what I would call mid-career teachers who've been in DPS for five to eight years are saying, 'I can go and make $5,000, $7,000, $10,000 more in another metro-area district.' And for our more newly hired educators, there's a lot of, 'I can't afford to pay my bills. Am I willing to live with roommates for a good portion of my career and put off having a family to do this? If not, maybe this isn't the career for me.'"
With such factors in mind, "our folks are saying, 'This would be a short-term hit, but our students are important enough to think about it,'" Kern maintains. "Many teachers tell us they want a strike to be a last option. But we've been talking with the district since 2011 and consistently for the past fifteen months, and there's a lot of frustration about compensation both in the structure and the amount teachers are paid."
In other words, that last option is looming. Today's public bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the DCTA begins at 9 a.m. at 1617 South Acoma Street.