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The clock is ticking as Denver teachers, students and families brace for strike

Parents divided, teachers united
Posted at 8:08 PM, Jan 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-17 09:39:12-05

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DENVER -- No deal yet. The clock is about to strike midnight with regard to negotiations over teacher pay in Denver. One of three bargaining sessions have now failed, leaving two left before a potential teacher strike.

"We're 100 percent ready to strike,” said Rebecka Hendricks, a teacher at Emily Griffith School in Denver. “Absolutely. One hundred percent."

"Our students don't have the time for us not to be serving them," said DPS superintendent Susana Cordova.

At issue are perhaps two central concerns: low teacher salaries and a top heavy central administration office.

Teachers make an average of $53,000 a year in Denver, according to the district’s own numbers. That compares to $59,000 in Aurora.

A teacher with 16 years of experience and a master's makes $65,000 in Denver, according to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, or DCTA. That compares to $87,000 in Cherry Creek and $86,000 in Boulder for the same level of experience and education.

Teachers say there’s also a problem with what they call a "bloated" DPS central administration office, which has 473 employees.

That’s nearly twice the state average, according to the Colorado Education Association (CEA).

Hendricks has been at the bargaining table for the union all week. She said the two sides are miles apart.

"We need more money," she said.

On the other side of the table, new superintendent Cordova said she is working on cuts.

“I agree that our central office is too big," she said. “We are offering another $17 million a year. A lot of what we're proposing right now is on a much more competitive scale."

But, Margaret Bobb, who just retired last summer after teaching for 26 years in Denver, argues DPS still isn't offering parity or a simple salary schedule, which is driving experienced teachers to neighboring districts.

"Once again, DPS is making it way more complicated than it needs to be, which is probably because they're trying to hide something," she said.

As for parents? They're divided.

Some see a strike as selfish.

"They walk out and who suffers?” asked one dad who asked us not to use his name. “Our kids. They need to work. Keep in mind, they have three months off in the summer."

Rose McBride, whose daughter attends Cheltenham Elementary, said she hopes teachers don't strike.

“Because if they do, I can’t go to work," she said. "That would suck. That would really mess with my schedule and I would have to figure something out for my daughter.”

Others see a strike as selfless.

"They're not demanding or asking for something unreasonable,” said Xochitl Gaytan, who has an 11-year-old in Denver Public Schools. “They're asking for a fair wage."

A new poll from the CEA shows nine out of 10 DPA parents support the teachers.

In contrast to that, the Denver Post editorial board has come out in favor of the district.

Gaytan said she believes the problems all stem from the previous superintendent who turned traditional neighborhood schools like Kepner Beacon Middle School into charters. Lincoln High is now made up of three different charters.

"The second floor of Lincoln has a wall in the middle of it," Gaytan said. “There’s something wrong with that.”

All the charters require lots of oversight, and some parents argue that’s the reason for those central administrators making big bucks.

"What positions are really needed?” Gaytan said. “That is a huge chunk of the budget and none of these people work directly with students.”

Another parents said while there are "the big guys up here," if you don't have teachers, you don't have a school.

So, what's next?

DPS is offering an additional $17 million. Teachers are asking for $31 million.

"Kids need experienced teachers," Bobb said. “And I'll be damned if they're going to continue to break what was once a viable, strong, public school system."

The teachers say they're ready to walk, something that hasn't happened in Denver since 1994.

"This can't go on," Hendricks said. “We're going to strike if something doesn't change."

The superintendent said if that happens, schools will not shut down.

"We'll have substitute teachers. We'll have licensed professionals,” Cordova said. “Our No. 1 priority will be keeping schools open."

But teachers are calling the district's bluff. They say there's no way the district has enough substitutes to replace 4,000 teachers.

"That's bargaining in bad faith," Bobb said.

"The people suffering are the students,” Gaytan said. “The children. My 11-year-old son who is in 5th grade."