Denver teacher strike: What to know before walkout Monday

Trevor Hughes

DENVER – Thousands of teachers are set to walk off the job Monday after failing to reach an agreement with Denver Public Schools administrators over salaries and bonuses – the latest in a year of teacher strikes across the nation.

Though classrooms would be staffed by substitutes and administrators, the strike would significantly disrupt operations at the 207-school district, administrators acknowledged. Early-childhood classrooms would be closed, leaving about 5,000 preschoolers at home.

The strike would bring picket lines outside schools and rallies at the park between the Statehouse and Denver's City Hall. The union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, represents about 5,635 educators.

“It’s not going to look like a typical school. We want to be honest about that," Superintendent Susana Cordova said.

The two sides met Saturday but were unable to resolve their differences. The union left negotiations, declaring the strike would happen Monday.

Teachers in America: No matter where they work, they feel disrespect

More: More strikes ahead? Teachers say they love their jobs but can't pay their bills

How will a strike look?

It's unclear exactly how the strike will affect schools and for how long.

Administrators prepared lesson plans and secured substitutes, and they plan to have schools open for at least the first few days of a strike.

Among 207 schools and about 90,000 students, any disruption could quickly ripple out. DPS is one of Denver's largest employers, and some parents plan to keep their kids home in an effort to force the district to compromise faster.

Denver's voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, and that may make many parents unwilling to cross the picket lines with their kids.

What does this mean for parents?

For many parents, a strike won't make a big difference, at least initially. Though administrators said schools won't operate as normal, they will be open.

That means kids will be expected to attend classes, and meals will be served. After-school activities will run on a school-by-school basis.

If the strike lingers on, administrators might run out of substitutes and fill-ins. The approximately 5,000 preschool kids won't be able to attend because the district can't quickly meet state-mandated standards for background checks and qualifications for subs in early-childhood classrooms.

What does this mean for students?

Except for preschoolers, students will be expected to attend classes, even if their normal teachers aren't working.

Most meal programs will still operate. Nearly 70 percent of DPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Why are teachers striking?

Denver's teachers are frustrated by what they see as chronic underfunding of public education in Colorado, along with uncertainty in their salaries.

School administrators tried to help increase pay for some teachers by creating bonuses for high performance, but the union wants to see all teachers get base raises and cost-of-living increases.

A big part of teachers' frustration is with the system known as "ProComp," which rolled out in 2005. ProComp was supposed to help the best teachers earn more money for helping students achieve high test scores or working in troubled schools.

A starting teacher in Denver earns $43,255 a year. The district offered to raise that to $45,500, but teachers want $45,800. ProComp bonuses can add up to $7,000 to a teacher's paycheck.

More: High costs push Colorado teachers to homes farther from their schools

More: 1 in 5 teachers hold a second job to make ends meet

“The district’s revolving door of teacher turnover must stop. DPS must improve teacher pay to keep quality, experienced teachers in Denver classrooms,” said the union president, Henry Roman.

Teachers won't be paid during the strike, and other unions are setting up food banks to help.

What's the district's response?

The district argues the bonus system rewards the best teachers when surplus taxpayer money is limited.

School funding in Colorado is set by legislators, who are limited in how much they can increase the state budget annually. In fall 2018, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have raised taxes on people earning more than $150,000 annually, dedicating the extra money to schools across the state. The measure easily passed in Denver but failed because voters outside the metro area opposed it.

More: Report gives Colorado public school spending an F

More: Colorado Legislature struggles to fund schools, so superintendents stepped up in 2018

District officials say each day of a strike will cost about $400,000. They say it's important to pay teachers well but tout the bonus system as the best way to reward teachers who are either highly effective or who volunteer to work in the lowest-performing schools.

How far apart are the sides in negotiations?

Not far, in the context of the overall budget of about $958 million: about $8 million, Cordova said last week. State officials urged the two sides to reach a deal before Monday morning.

"A strike is an effort of last resort, and one where the ramifications are immense, unpredictable and costly," the Department of Labor and Employment said in a letter to the district superintendent last week, urging a resolution. "Additional costs will be inflicted upon Denver families should schools not be able to offer full services, and teachers going without wages will also bear the cost burdens of a strike in ways that are difficult to calculate."

Aren’t teachers striking all over the country these days? 

Teachers have picketed across America, dating back to February 2018. There have been walkouts and demonstrations in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado and Washington state, and most recently in Los Angeles.

The LA strike lasted six days in January and threw the city into chaos as many parents kept their kids home and teachers picketed schools.

The strike was resolved by a deal for a 6 percent raise, a decrease in class sizes, and additional support staff, including librarians and counselors.

The strikes could continue: Teachers in Oakland, California, could walk out this month.

More: Even when teachers strike, Americans give them high grades, poll shows. Unions fare worse.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Denver teacher strike: What to know before walkout Monday