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DENVER — A flyer made by Sarah Thomas’ math students advertising a sit-in to show solidarity with striking teachers hangs framed on her classroom wall, an ever-present reminder of the empowerment, exhaustion and unification born out of last year’s historic Denver teacher walkout.
“The strike gave me a glimpse into who I really was and what’s really important,” said Thomas, a teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College. “It just worked its magic. It was something that needed to be done, and doing it brought people together.”
The three-day strike also brought educators raises — an average of $9,000 a year, funded in part through job cuts in Denver Public Schools’ central office — that district officials credit for a noticeable uptick in teacher retention, according to The Denver Post. Teachers attribute momentum from the strike for November’s changing of the guard on the Denver school board, shifting control from members backed by pro-reform organizations to candidates supported by the teachers union.
Now, one year after Denver’s first teacher strike in a quarter-century, many educators say the walkout was a step in the right direction for a district long criticized for its top-heavy administration and a convoluted pay system. Teachers watched their activism burgeon into change — the kind of change that impacts bank accounts and instills goodwill among colleagues and the community.
But educators and Superintendent Susana Cordova said they know the strike wasn’t a cure for everything that ails Colorado’s largest school district.
While many teachers received post-strike raises, Cordova said pay still lags for Denver schools’ hourly workers. Cordova said she’s committed to raising hourly workers’ wages to slightly higher than $15 an hour, in line with the citywide minimum wage increase. New Denver school board member Tay Anderson, who attributes part of his November victory to the strike, said $15 is not a livable wage, and he hopes hourly workers get paid closer to $20 an hour.
Cordova, who began her tenure as DPS’s leader in the contentious weeks before the strike, said the tumultuous start to her job shaped her vision for the district moving forward.
“I want it to be the kind of place where we can solve problems in a very different way — much more proactively and with teacher and leadership voices along the way,” Cordova said. “When I look back, I think it was not inevitable that we got to where we were a year ago, but there were very clear choices that had been made along the way that I think made it as difficult as it was. My hope is to do that work in a very different way.”
Three weeks after the Denver Classroom Teachers Association voted to authorize a strike, more than 2,600 educators walked out of their classrooms on Feb. 11, 2019, in the name of fair pay.
Denver’s 160 schools remained open, and the strike was resolved before dawn on Valentine’s Day — following chaotic classroom scenes, preschool cancellations and district administrators filling in for marching teachers. The strike, part of a nationwide sweep of teacher walkouts, followed months of heated bargaining sessions and culminated in a marathon, overnight negotiation at the downtown library.
But did Denver Public Schools fulfill the promises laid out in the final, strike-ending agreement? District officials say yes — above and beyond.
The contract with the teachers union called for an average 11.7% increase in educators’ base salary. Winna Maclaren, a spokeswoman for DPS, said the average salary increase actually turned out to be 15% for returning teachers. That difference, which Chalkbeat first reported, was due to the higher retention of teachers, which meant more highly paid veterans remained on staff and earned larger raises than newer hires.
The contract called for an additional $23.1 million to be used in funding teacher compensation. Maclaren said total teacher compensation ended up being $11 million more than anticipated. That unexpected funding will come out of the district’s reserves, Chalkbeat reported.
DPS officials said the following provisions negotiated as part of the strike-ending contract also were met over the past year:
— A transparent 20-step salary schedule starting at $45,800 a year and topping out at $100,000 for teachers with 20 years experience and a doctorate
— Full cost-of-living increases in the second and third years of the agreement
— The ability to use professional development units — free in-district courses offered to advance teachers’ education — to move up lanes on the salary schedule
— An end to bonuses for senior DPS administrators
Still a chief concern among many Denver educators: Did promised cuts to the district’s swollen central office actually thin out the number of administrators? Or were those at the top shuffled around and given new titles?
Denver Public Schools officials had vowed to cut $17 million from the central administration after the strike, which they expected to be achieved through the elimination of more than 150 administrative positions.
According to the district, DPS did, in fact, save $17 million through a district reorganization, a reduction in some employees’ workdays and a redirection of funds to school-based positions — in addition to cutting jobs in the central office.
Rachel Barnes, who teaches English as a second language at Bradley International School and served as a strike captain last year, said she was grateful for her $10,000 pay increase, but still skeptical of the district’s willingness to trim administrative fat.
“It felt nice to have an actual monetary reward for the work I do, but it’s still frustrating when schools have to choose between a librarian or another classroom teacher and there’s still this lack of resources,” Barnes said. “Then they say they made these cuts, but they just shift everybody around.”
Cordova said 265 of the district’s 11,435 central administration positions originally were cut — far more than the anticipated 150.
Of those laid-off staffers, 35% left the district, 27% took new positions based at schools and 38% took other new positions within the central administration. Some were hired into existing vacancies in both teaching and non-teaching roles, the district said.
After all that shook out, Cordova said, a total of 165 central administration positions had been eliminated.
Tiffany Choi, president of Denver’s teachers union, said a recent presentation during the public comment period of a DPS school board meeting questioned how many millions of dollars the district actually cut when taking into account re-hires.
“I think there is still a lot we need to do internally in DPS with looking at where our budget dollars are going,” Choi said.
Cordova referenced household organizer Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” when describing the thought process behind the cuts.
“She says don’t clean your house room by room, but find all of your coats and decide how many coats you need to keep because when you don’t do it that way, you actually don’t realize how many places you had coats hanging throughout the house,” Cordova said.
Cordova said people were grouped into topics — such as employees who worked on coaching across multiple departments — and reduced from there so DPS could still focus on coaching but with fewer cooks in the kitchen. “We really tried to be as thoughtful as possible in the central office reorganization.”
The superintendent assured teachers that school teams aren’t taking on the additional costs incurred by raising educator pay.
“We put more funding into schools so if enrollment stays the same, they can purchase the same amount of teachers,” Cordova said.
“Momentum to change”
While that may be reassuring for some, Merrill Middle School teacher Aly Nutter was so burned out before the strike even happened that she saw the February 2019 activism as a last hurrah before leaving the profession altogether.
“I was seeing the people who were in it for so long, and they were exhausted and many of them didn’t seem happy anymore,” Nutter said. “I decided to leave because of the testing culture. Even though we did really well with the strike, and we won what we were negotiating for, we could only negotiate salaries. Yes, we do deserve to be paid as professionals, but there are way bigger problems than teacher pay.”
Choi wants Denver teachers and students of color to be better served by a more equitable division of school resources and restorative discipline practices. The teachers union president thinks Denver’s School Performance Framework needs to be re-evaluated to focus less on teaching in the name of test scores.
Former strike captain Barnes wants to ensure the district’s budget is managed transparently and equitably across the city.
Thomas, the math teacher, believes administrators count on teachers to be data collectors first and educators second. She hopes that mentality changes to benefit students.
Nutter, who isn’t sure what her next career move will be, said she hopes the unity and power gained by teachers during the strike continues to propel DPS in a direction that better serves the students at the root of it all.
After months of strike planning, school days followed by long nights crammed in bargaining sessions and early mornings walking the picket lines, teachers interviewed by The Denver Post a year after 2019’s historic strike agreed they had something they were lacking before the walkout: the knowledge that their activism can make a difference.
“I was very impressed that so many of us were willing to come together over something and demand better,” Nutter said. “I think that’s going to set us up in the future when the next contract is up. Because of the strike, we have momentum to change.”