Denver teachers now on strike, 92,000 kids still have to go to school

By Holly Yan and Sara Weisfeldt, CNN

(CNN) -- Fifteen months of simmering frustration boiled over Monday as Denver teachers went on strike.

It's the latest in a long line of teachers' strikes that spread across the country last year and keeps gaining momentum this year.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools made a last-ditch effort to settle their differences over the weekend. But the talks went nowhere, meaning up to 92,000 students will go to school without their teachers indefinitely.

"We're hoping for a quick solution to this whole thing," DCTA lead negotiator Rob Gould said Monday. "We're hoping (school district officials) come to the table tomorrow ready to listen so we can get back to work. Because our teachers want to be in the classrooms with their kids."

The big sticking point involves teachers' base salaries.

Teachers say they're fed up with uncertain income year to year, since DPS' pay system uses unpredictable bonuses to compensate for low base pay.

"You can't bank anything on what you're going to make each year because they have these little bonuses that come and go," said Spanish teacher Kelsey Brown. "Two years ago, I made more than I'm making now."

The 31-year-old teacher made $56,000 last year, but the rising cost of living in Denver means she has to work extra jobs -- as a lacrosse coach, exchange program coordinator and summer camp employee.

The union says students deserve teachers who "stay in Denver for the entirety of their careers, and Denver educators deserve to afford to live in the communities they serve."

The school district said it's listening to teachers' concerns and made a series of offers to the union -- all of which have been rejected.

"I am extremely disappointed that the DCTA walked away from the table," Superintendent Susana Cordova said late Saturday. "We presented an updated proposal that responds to what we heard from our teachers ... and significantly increases the base pay for all of our educators."

What both sides have put up

Denver Public Schools says it's offered:

-- $23 million in new funds next year for teachers' base salaries. (That would increase the average teacher's salary from about $55,000 to $61,000 next year.)

-- A total investment of $55 million over the next three years.

-- An increased starting salary of $45,800 for new teachers.

-- Another $2 million investment in base pay for teachers and specialized staff members that would "come from additional, painful cuts to our central departments, which we estimate to be an elimination of about 150 positions in the central office."

-- The elimination of performance bonuses for central office senior staff. "We would invest those funds directly in our highest-needs schools, with a proposed increase in incentive pay for teaching in our schools with the highest poverty rates," the school district said. "Our offer increases that incentive from $2,500 to $3,000."

DPS illustrated how its concessions to the union -- more than $20 million since last June -- is significantly more than the union's decrease in demands.

But the union said it's still waiting for "a fair, competitive and transparent salary schedule that prioritizes base salary over complicated, unreliable bonuses."

These are the salaries DCTA is asking for

"We are incredibly disappointed that on the last day of bargaining and less than two days before a strike, they doubled down on one-time incentives teachers do not want, and the data shows do not work to keep teachers in their schools," DCTA President and teacher Henry Roman said.

What students will do without their teachers

It's not clear how many of DPS' 5,000-plus teachers will be absent indefinitely.So far, the school district had received more than 2,000 requests for substitute teachers this week, DPS spokeswoman Anna Alejo said.

The DCTA union, which represents most of Denver's teachers, said 93% of its members voted to authorize a strike. So many students will have no clue when they'll see their teachers again.

Despite the strike, DPS said students should still go to class this week. All schools except preschools will run on normal schedules, as will bus transportation.

"Qualified DPS staff, including certified guest teachers and administrators with educator licenses, will be in schools providing instruction during the strike," the school district said.

About 300 substitutes have been hired, and about 1,400 central office staffers have been re-assigned to schools, Alejo said.

Some teachers are too broke to strike

Since teachers aren't getting paid while on strike, not every teacher who wants to strike can do so.

"I really, really want to because I do support the mission ... but I literally financially cannot afford to," said math teacher Sophia Leung. "For me to lose out on $200 of pay a day, it does impact my bills for the month."

And as a first-year teacher, Leung said she can't even afford the $70 monthly dues to join the local teachers' union.

But this renewed wave of teachers' strikes shows the sacrifices teachers are willing to make, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

"A strike is not a first resort for anyone. It's a last resort -- especially for teachers who are asked to do more with less every day," she said. "And enough is enough."

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