Denver teachers will vote on a strike this month

Teacher will either vote to approve a new contract or strike

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The clock is ticking. After more than a year of salary negotiations, teachers say they are getting ready for their last resort: voting for a strike.

For the last 18 months, members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been meeting with Denver Public Schools officials, trying to work out a system that pays teachers better. The DCTA is the union representing teachers in Denver.

The average salary for DPS teachers during the 2017-18 school year was $50,757 according to the Colorado Department of Education. It is the largest school district in the state. Jefferson County Public Schools, the second largest district, had an average salary of $57,154 for the 2017-18 school year. Cherry Creek School District, the state’s fourth largest district, had an average salary of $71,711.

Teachers across the state have been fighting for better pay. Henry Roman, president of the association and an elementary school teacher, said a possible strike in Denver has been a long time coming. After the first several months of negotiations, DPS brought forth a proposal, but it didn’t meet any of the needs discussed in meetings, Roman said.

“After meeting for three consecutive months of a meeting of the minds, once we saw the product, meaning their proposal, we realized that they were not listening to any of the things we talked about,” he said. “In essence, (we) essentially said we wanted a predictable income.”

In March, the DCTA gave DPS a timeframe to develop a proposal and, if an agreement could not be made, teachers would hold a vote for a strike on Jan. 18.

This is not just a battle between teachers and the district, Roman said. The reason strikes are a last resort for teachers is because of the impact it can have on student learning. Roman said the DCTA has been holding public meetings at the schools, such as South High School, to help involve parents in the process.

“It’s so important,” he said. “The working conditions of our teachers are the learning conditions of our students.”

Low teacher pay leads to higher turnover rates, Roman said. This affects students who have begun to build relationships with their teachers. Roman said some areas in the district have turnover rates as high as 90 percent from year to year.

But Debbie Hearty, chief human resources officer for DPS, argued that teacher retention is on the rise at 86 percent.

Hearty added that finding funding to increase teachers salaries can be difficult with the way education is funded in Colorado as a whole.

“We are in complete agreement that our teachers need more money,” she said. “It’s really hard in Colorado with the state-level funding.”

Teachers in Denver are paid using the Professional Compensation system, or Pro-Comp. When Pro-Comp was first created, Roman said, it was a sliding scale. Veteran teachers who had been in the district for a longer period of time would get salary increases. But in 2008, the system was changed to what it is today — a confusing setup of one-time bonuses and incentives. It makes it difficult for teachers to read their paycheck and know if they are being paid the correct amount, Roman said.

“It became heavily one-time variable pay and that was never the intent,” he said. “It doesn’t honor the mission we had in the first version.”

That Pro-Comp is a confusing system is something on which both teachers and the district can agree.

“Our current system has too many complexities,” Hearty said. “It’s not helpful. I’m deeply committed to simplifying.”

The district sent out a new proposal on Dec. 13, the day after a negotiating meeting, hours before the DCTA held a community meeting regarding the possible strike at South High School.

The proposal would take funds out of the bonus system and put them into the base salary budget, Hearty said. The proposal also worked to make the bonus system more clear. The proposal also offers to increase the starting salary for new teachers to $45,000.

The proposal still has a lot of details to iron out, and the district is willing to hold further talks, Hearty said.

Roman said he is hopeful that negotiations will result in an agreement both sides can approve, especially with Susana Cordova coming in as the new superintendent. The district announced that Cordova would be taking over the position in December. Cordova attended DPS schools, according to a news release from the district. She then worked her way up through DPS as a teacher, principal and eventually to deputy superintendent. She will start in her new postion early this year, the release said.

“Our hope is the district comes to the table with a proposal that reflects the fact that they have been listening to us,” Roman said.

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