Denver Public Schools, teachers union invited to meet with Gov. Jared Polis one last time before state decides on strike intervention

February 4, 2019

Colorado labor officials have invited Denver Public Schools and the union representing most of the district’s educators to meet with Gov. Jared Polis for one last opportunity to come to an agreement before the state decides whether to intervene in a looming teachers strike.

A memo from Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, sent to the teachers union and the district on Monday listed two reasons why the state might be compelled to intervene based on the parties’ negotiations so far.

“Thursday night’s negotiation turned into political theater at its worst, not meaningful negotiations,” Barela wrote. “This trend is very troublesome and weighs heavily on the state’s decision to intervene or not… One reason the state may be compelled to intervene is that the state would be in a better place to ensure a process is designed to resolve disputes within the scope of the contracts at hand.”

Secondly, Barela noted a “lack of shared mutual understanding of the facts and costs of the competing proposals.”

In a late afternoon news release, the Denver teachers union called the state “misguided” in its idea that the government was “in a better place” to find a resolution.

“Every day the state delays its decision on whether or not to intervene is another day our teachers are denied their right to strike,” said Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, in the news release. “That is the only remaining tool at our disposal to fix the entire pay system that is hurting Denver students and driving down our competitiveness to attract and retain quality teachers.”

Anna Alejo, a spokeswoman for Denver Public Schools, which requested the intervention, said the district appreciates the state’s work.

“We believe that it would be better for everyone to get to an agreement before a strike,” Alejo wrote in an email. “The letter lays out areas where joint work needs to be done to get to an agreement; we would like to engage in productive negotiations to discuss these.”

Along with the memo came an analysis of each side’s compensation proposal by the state’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting “to establish a common understanding of the competing proposals and the costs associated with each.”

The district and the teachers union have disagreed on numbers related to both of their plans, prompting labor department officials to previously tell The Denver Post that one reason the state may choose to intervene would be to assist in a fact-finding process.

The state’s analysis concluded that the current DPS starting teacher salary for the 2019-2020 school year is $43,255. The district’s proposal kicks that starting salary up to $45,500, the analysis found, while the union’s proposal is even higher at $45,800.

Comparatively, the analysis shows that the Boulder Valley School District’s starting teacher salary, when adjusted for 3 percent inflation for the next school year, is at $47,726, while the h Adams 12 district’s starting teachers will receive $40,783.

The state estimates that the union’s proposal, which moves through eight sections of a salary scale as educators earn credits toward advancing their education, would cost $28.4 million in the first year and that 10 percent to 20 percent of teachers would bump up the scale annually.

DPS’s compensation proposal — which has six lanes to bump up through a pay scale and focuses more money on bonuses and incentives to teachers in hard-to-fill positions and high-poverty schools — would cost $20.8 million in the first year with 10 percent of educators moving up in pay annually, the analysis found.

The analysis began to clear up some misconceptions between the district and the union. During public bargaining sessions, the district expressed concern that counting educators’ professional development units — a district program that helps teachers and special service providers like nurses and school psychologists advance their education — toward their pay would make educators advance too quickly up the scale.

The analysis found this to be “unlikely” when compared to other districts and noted, “There appears to have been no substantive discussion between the parties” about how to properly execute the situation.

“While much of the public focus in this contract dispute has been on teacher salary levels, upon closer examination, it has been our observation that most of the points of contention are predicated on philosophy disagreements other than teacher pay,” Barela wrote. “These include opportunities for professional development and career advancement, as well as incentives for working in disadvantaged or underperforming schools, and other workplace-related issues.

“Moving negotiations forward seems highly unlikely, until both parties can get to a common starting point on financial numbers, resolve ideological divides on how to serve our highest risk children in both Title 1 schools as well as the Top 30 poverty schools, and to agree on steps and lanes with guardrails in the districts pay schedule.”

The state labor department has until Feb. 11 to make a decision on whether the state will get involved in the teacher compensation battle that has been ongoing for the past 14 months.

Government involvement could delay a walkout by up to 180 days. The labor department can’t impose a bargaining agreement on the parties or otherwise stop a strike beyond the 180 days of possible postponement.

To intervene, the state must decide that its involvement is in the public’s interest.

“The governor supports workers’ rights, including their right to strike,” Barela wrote. “Moreover, while he believes it is the right of workers to strike, he also believes it is the responsibility of both parties to avoid a strike if possible. He is a relentless optimist about working out our differences and getting along… it is incumbent upon the governor and the state to help facilitate a bargaining process with integrity, and that includes mutual understanding of the facts and confidence in both parties to work together, both during this process and beyond.”

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