Denver Teachers Went on Strike To Be Able To Live Where They Teach

Kelsey Ray

Denver teachers are the latest educators to walk off the job. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Update: On Feb. 14, Den­ver teach­ers reached a ten­ta­tive deal with the local school dis­trict that includes sig­nif­i­cant pay increas­es, and sus­pend­ed their strike.

On Mon­day, more than 5,000 teach­ers, par­ents and stu­dents from pub­lic schools across Den­ver took part in a fes­tive ral­ly on the steps of the Col­orado state capi­tol. The demon­stra­tion marked the first day of a teacher strike to demand high­er base salaries and a pay scale sys­tem that’s clear, pre­dictable and that will allow teach­ers to afford to live in the neigh­bor­hoods where they work.

Despite freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, the mood at the capi­tol was ener­gized, the air filled with chants, a live­ly brass band and a stream of enthu­si­as­tic honks from pass­ing cars. Demon­stra­tors wore red hats and parkas, a nod to the grow­ing nation­al Red for Ed” move­ment, and car­ried signs with slo­gans such as You can’t put stu­dents first if you put teach­ers last” and A is for Apple. B is for Raise.” Sup­port­ers offered free cof­fee, tamales and donuts, or sold snacks as fundrais­ers for school groups. One mes­sage emerged loud and clear: Teach­ers would rather be in the class­room, but the strike was too important.

After more than 15 months of nego­ti­a­tions with Den­ver Pub­lic Schools (DPS) failed to result in an agree­ment over its pay-for-per­for­mance com­pen­sa­tion sched­ule, on Jan. 22, the Den­ver Class­room Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion vot­ed to strike for the first time in 25 years.

We’re dis­ap­point­ed that the DCTA walked away from the table,” DPS said in a state­ment, claim­ing its updat­ed pro­pos­al aligns with its val­ues of equi­ty and sig­nif­i­cant­ly increas­es base pay. The union said in a state­ment that the district’s pro­pos­als exac­er­bate the prob­lems edu­ca­tors are try­ing to fix” and that the salary main­tains unpre­dictable bonus­es that dis­rupt our stu­dents’ edu­ca­tion.” While DPS claimed that 2,631 of the 4,725 teach­ers work­ing in non-char­ter schools walked off, the union says about 3,700 edu­ca­tors and spe­cial ser­vice providers have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the strike.

We need a trans­par­ent pay sched­ule from our dis­trict so we know what to expect and when, and how to bud­get accord­ing­ly,” said Shawn Hann, a dra­ma teacher at Den­ver School of the Arts. She said that the district’s cur­rent incen­tive-based pay sys­tem, Pro­Comp, is unwieldy, with a com­pli­cat­ed bonus sys­tem that leads to unpre­dictable paychecks.

Hann also claimed Den­ver teacher salaries aren’t keep­ing pace with the city’s sky­rock­et­ing cost of liv­ing. She has a master’s degree and has taught for 25 years, but hasn’t got­ten a mean­ing­ful raise in ten years. She says she’s lucky enough to own a small house in Den­ver that she bought in 2003, but she now lives pay­check to pay­check. In 2017, the aver­age salary for Col­orado teach­ers was $51,808, which ranks 31st in the nation. Accord­ing to USA Today, Colorado’s cost of liv­ing is the 19th highest.

Hann’s sto­ry isn’t unusu­al. Many teach­ers con­fessed to tak­ing on mul­ti­ple side jobs to sup­port them­selves, or hav­ing to rely on a high­er-earn­ing part­ner. Kahlea Qualls, a music teacher at Car­son Ele­men­tary, works overnight shifts at a hotel to sup­ple­ment her income. Meaghan Quigley lives almost an hour away from her job at Den­ver School of the Arts and nev­er works few­er than 80 hours per week over the sum­mer. Stacey O’Neil, who works at Slavens School, said that if not for her husband’s pay­check, she wouldn’t be able to sup­port her kids.

One result of the strike is that teach­ers are final­ly able to dis­cuss their strug­gles open­ly. That’s the hard­est part. A lot of times we don’t want to talk about it, to admit that this pro­fes­sion doesn’t treat us with integri­ty,” said Hann. This is the first time I’ve talked about my pay­check in 25 years.”

Sev­er­al demon­stra­tors held signs implor­ing DPS to respect and pro­tect immi­grant teach­ers, refer­ring to a leaked email the dis­trict sent some schools in late Jan­u­ary. The email warned schools that edu­ca­tors on cer­tain kinds of work visas would be report­ed to immi­gra­tion author­i­ties if they chose to strike. After a local racial jus­tice advo­ca­cy group pub­lished the email online, com­mu­ni­ty out­rage was swift. The dis­trict quick­ly apol­o­gized for the email, which DPS spokesper­son Will Jones said was a mis­take based on a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of infor­ma­tion. But the dam­age, in the form of dis­trust and fear, was done.

Car­los Valdez, an orga­niz­er for the Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Orga­ni­za­tion and a high school teacher for a near­by dis­trict, said that the email was an intim­i­da­tion tac­tic. We saw it as [the dis­trict] try­ing to divide teach­ers when it came time to strike, and try­ing to weak­en their pow­er out here in the streets,” he said. They claim to sup­port equi­ty in schools with high pover­ty rates and with black and brown stu­dents, but then they attack and threat­en teach­ers who are immi­grants and who are black or brown.”

In a state­ment released in Jan­u­ary, DPS super­in­ten­dent Susana Cor­do­va said, As a school dis­trict, we have been res­olute in our oppo­si­tion to shar­ing any infor­ma­tion that could neg­a­tive­ly impact the rights of our immi­grant pop­u­la­tions and strong­ly believe that shar­ing such infor­ma­tion would run direct­ly counter to our core beliefs.”

Valdez also com­plained about the district’s high num­ber of admin­is­tra­tive posi­tions com­pared to teach­ing jobs. Col­orado Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion data shows that DPS employs one admin­is­tra­tor for every 7.5 instruc­tion­al staff mem­bers, a rate Valdez called ridicu­lous.” (The state aver­age is one admin­is­tra­tive posi­tion for every 11.3 instruc­tors.) Valdez said that many of those admin­is­tra­tive posi­tions go towards the district’s push for more school choice in Den­ver. Choice is real­ly just a cod­ed word for pri­va­ti­za­tion,” he said.

On its web­site, DPS announced that class­es would car­ry on as usu­al Mon­day for all stu­dents except preschool­ers, for whom the dis­trict doesn’t have enough trained edu­ca­tors to teach dur­ing the strike. For oth­ers, it promised grade- and sub­ject-spe­cif­ic les­son plans so that guest teach­ers can teach high-qual­i­ty lessons to stu­dents.” But a group of stu­dents from the Den­ver School of Inno­va­tion and Sus­tain­able Design said one admin­is­tra­tor-led class was lit­tle more than a study hall — and they used it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to prac­tice a bit of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence of their own.

We were being loud to inten­tion­al­ly dis­rupt school,” said senior Max Pliskin. If it runs nor­mal­ly and the teach­ers aren’t there, then the strike los­es pow­er. The whole point is that school can’t run with­out teach­ers, and so by being dis­rup­tive, the goal was to make things not func­tion.” Pliskin and some friends were ulti­mate­ly sus­pend­ed for their behav­ior, and chose to spend the rest of their day vis­it­ing the capi­tol in sup­port of their teachers.

Evan Shaw, anoth­er senior, said the strike offers plen­ty to learn out­side the class­room. I think this is a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to show stu­dents that col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and unions are good for peo­ple, they’re good for the work­ers, they help give you more mon­ey, more rights, more free­dom. It’s unions that got us the week­end and the 40-hour work­day. I think it’s a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple to see that they should be work­ing together.”

Nego­ti­a­tions resumed Tues­day morn­ing, but as of pub­li­ca­tion, the strike is still ongoing.

Kelsey Ray is a writer in Colorado.
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