Denver school teachers strike ends

by Kim Boateng Posted on February 16th, 2019

Denver, Colorado: Denver teachers returned to the classroom after the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools reached a tentative labor agreement Thursday morning. Teachers in Denver had been on strike since Monday.

At issue was teacher pay — specifically, a system that granted certain teachers incentives for working in high-poverty schools or in hard-to-staff subjects. Union leaders wanted higher base salaries for more teachers and more opportunities to work toward a higher pay grade through professional development.

The tentative agreement includes a base salary increase, between 7 to 11 percent, and changes to the incentive system.

“This agreement is a win, plain and simple: for our students; for our educators; and for our communities,” said Henry Roman, president of the teachers union, on Thursday.

“This is a strong investment in our teachers — in both their base salary and the equity incentives,” Superintendent Susana Cordova said after the deal was announced. “I’m very pleased we were able to reach a deal and in the collaborative way we worked together today. There was a recognition that we share many areas of agreement, and we worked hard to listen and find common ground on the few areas where we had different perspectives.”

The agreement will go into effect once it is ratified by a majority of union members and the school board.

Henry Roman compared the all-night bargaining session that ended Denver’s first teachers strike in 25 years to a Netflix binge.

“There was such momentum,” said Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “It was like Netflix — a nice of episode of something, and then it keeps going, and you can’t turn it off. We had these moments where it felt like we were almost there, and then the conversation takes longer, and then it seems like you’re almost there again.”

The three-day teachers strike came to a close just before dawn Thursday, with weary bargaining teams from the union and Denver Public Schools signing a tentative compensation agreement in the basement of the downtown library.

The deal, which still must be approved by the union’s membership and the Denver school board, caps off 15 months of negotiations. It puts an additional $23.1 million toward teacher pay ($25.2 million with incentives), awards educators average raises of 11.7 percent next year and establishes a new salary schedule that starts at $45,800 a year and tops out at $100,000 annually.

The strike-ending agreement was the result of 31 hours of bargaining over two separate sessions that stretched into three days, with the final push for a new contract coming with the district and union teams holed up separately upstairs from just before 8 p.m. Wednesday to around 5:30 a.m. Thursday.

During that nine-hour hiatus from the public bargaining table, diehard teachers slept on the floor, broke out a guitar and conducted impromptu yoga classes in the library basement, waiting to see whether they’d be back in their classrooms come daylight. As the night stretched into morning and most of the educators in the room succumbed to strike-induced exhaustion, the few teachers left continued wondering aloud: “What is going on up there?”

Rob Gould, the union’s lead negotiator, joked in an interview Friday that most will never know what really happened during those wee morning hours.

“What happened in that room stays in that room,” Gould said with a smile.

But piecing together insights from Gould, Roman, DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova and federal mediator Kayla Mack — who shuttled between the two sides — paints a story ripe for the popular streaming television service.

“We’re creating a movement here”

During the daylight hours, Roman said he found it surreal to look outside the window of the Denver Central Library’s fifth-floor conference room and see masses of red-clad teachers marching and chanting about the wages he and his team were trying to improve.

“It felt like, ‘Wow, we’re creating a movement here,’ ” Roman said. “It was very, very touching.”

As night grew closer — and so did the two sides’ compensation proposals — the prospect of brokering a deal felt within reach. But the devil was in the details.

Arguments broke out on the union’s bargaining team as specialized service providers — school nurses, school psychologists, speech-language pathologists — wanted to ensure their part of the compensation plan was as lucrative as the teachers’ deal.

While days of bargaining had been devoted to professional development units for teachers, the so-called SSPs wanted defined details on how their similar continuing education units — CEUs — would be counted toward their pay.

“One of the things we were talking about during that long time was CEUs,” Roman said. “We spent up to two hours just going back and forth trying to define it, make sure the district understands where we’re coming from. The conversation can be really nuanced.”

Because both sides must — by state law — negotiate in public, the private caucusing that took place overnight had to be conducted with the district’s team in one room and the teachers union in another. Downstairs in the basement, at the public bargaining table, the remaining teachers and members of the press waited.

Mack, the mediator, practiced shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between the two teams.

An employee of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Mack worked with DPS and the union about a year ago when discussions around the ProComp teacher pay system — the issue at the heart of this week’s negotiations — heated up.

“A mediator is there engaging the substance of it all,” Mack said. “There’s an education piece where the parties are catching the mediator up on the proposal and the meeting. To be able to engage and be meaningful, I have to understand what they’re talking about, but it’s also about navigating people dynamics and their priorities and strategies.”

Both sides had nothing but praise for Mack, who Cordova described as an “incredibly effective translator.”

“She was back and forth between the two rooms, and she was pushing us really, really, really hard around defining and describing and putting into writing what were the most important things to us and what were the ways we could compromise to get an agreement,” Cordova said. “It was really clear that she wasn’t on anybody’s side. Her role was to get us to be able to hear each other and to turn that into productive movement.”

A midnight coffee delivery perked Gould up and helped keep him going until around 4 a.m., he said. The union’s bargaining team had split into groups, with a few people working on different issues — professional development units, the salary schedule, incentives.

“We were laughing, we were crying, we were angry at each other at some points,” Gould said. “But, of course, we’re a team, so while all those things were happening, we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is bigger than us. This is about all our members.”

Up until the end, Gould said members of the union’s bargaining team continued throwing out elements they thought should be added to the agreement.

“You could go on like that forever and never reach a deal,” Roman said. “We stopped around 5:30 a.m. We said we’ve done everything we can possibly do. We’re going to go down there.”

“How Not to Start Your Superintendency”

The rest is DPS history, something Cordova — who took the helm of the district in early January — didn’t foresee being how she kicked off her tenure as superintendent.

“I have been joking that the memoir I will someday write will be ‘How Not to Start Your Superintendency,’ ” Cordova said. “Obviously, it’s less than ideal conditions particularly because my motivation to apply was to try to create a much more collaborative environment to achieve results. It was really challenging to start off in circumstances beyond my control in terms of what were the issues at play, the environment of issues.”

While Cordova is no stranger to DPS, having been a teacher, principal and working in the central administration, she said she had no role in labor negotiations before becoming superintendent.

She was aware of the contract dispute that was brewing as she applied for the superintendent job, but didn’t foresee a strike in her future.

“I probably naively thought that because I understood that and was willing to work and negotiate, we could avert a strike,” Cordova said. “Looking back, I don’t know that I could’ve done that. I mean, obviously, I couldn’t.”

After the all-nighter, Cordova took a cat nap and then dropped by the teachers union’s office with a gift basket and invited the negotiation team to dinner.

“I’m really excited to work in collaboration with our union and teachers,” Cordova said.

Members of union’s bargaining team headed to the Denver Diner after the pre-dawn announcement ending the strike. Over biscuits and gravy, Gould paused and thought to himself, “What just happened?”

“I was actually kind of depressed because I just had too many numbers in my head,” Gould said. “Our position was we needed $28 million, and we ended at about $25.2 million in base.”

Friends offered Gould a ride back to his car at the Colorado Education Association building, but he declined, saying he just needed to walk and be alone with his thoughts.

“When I thought about it, I realized we did an amazing job and this is just the start of what we need to do for our teachers,” Gould said. “I do think a lot about how this entire process, while it was a crisis, was also an opportunity for Denver Public Schools to come together. We had to fix a glaring problem with teachers leaving DPS, and we’ve made that progress today. We look forward to where we’ll be going in the future and tackling more issues with education including education funding.

“It’s a great day for students and teachers. It’s a great day for labor. It’s a great day for DPS.”

Image: Liz Myers (center), a teacher at High Tech Elementary School, joins a chant during a rally for striking Denver Public Schools instructors in Civic Center Park.

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