Denver Teacher Rally

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith High School, addresses a crowd of about 200 assembled outside Denver Public School headquarters, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in downtown Denver. Teachers have overwhelmingly voted to strike but their plans to walk off the job have been placed on hold after the district asked the state to intervene. (AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda)

Criticizing the most recent teacher pay bargaining session as “political theater,” the head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment sent a memo to the Denver school district and teachers union Monday urging both sides to work harder to find common ground — even as he expressed skepticism that the two sides would reach a deal.

CDLE Executive Director Joe Barela's letter also says Gov. Jared Polis "is asking for members of each party to meet with him early this week to discuss the path forward" to resolving the dispute.

“Most of the points of contention are predicated on philosophy disagreements other than teacher pay,” Barela wrote in the letter. He added that, “Moving negotiations forward seems highly unlikely until both parties can get to a common starting point.”

Denver Public Schools has asked state labor officials to intervene in the dispute over how — and how much — to pay the district’s educators. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association wants the state to stay out of it.

Union members voted last month to go on strike, but the action has been on hold while Polis decides whether to get involved.

Polis has until Feb. 11 to decide whether to intervene, which could delay a Denver strike by as much as 180 days.

The letter from Barela requests that the district and the union each meet with the governor to review an “informal analysis” of each side’s proposal being conducted by state budget officials.

Last Thursday, union leaders rejected the latest district offer, which called for investing an additional $50 million into teacher pay over the next three years.

The offer represented movement by the district by proposing an additional $3 million for teacher pay in the 2020-21 school year, plus two additional years of cost-of-living raises.

Union negotiators called the offer a waste of time. Supporters  demonstrated behind Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova and cried “Shame!” as she tried to speak with reporters.

“The offer you have brought today is an example of your inability to listen to our educators,” lead union negotiator Rob Gould told Cordova and her team. He reminded them teachers had voted to strike. “From this day forward, you will have no choice but to listen.”

Barela’s letter says Polis “supports workers’ rights, including their right to strike.” It also notes that Polis “joined Pueblo teachers on the picket line” when they went out on strike last year. State labor officials did not intervene in that strike, despite a request from the district.

One difference between Pueblo and Denver: the Pueblo teachers union had already engaged in what Barela called “an objective effort to arrive on mutual facts” with the district when teachers went out on strike. The fact-finding process has not yet occurred in Denver, and Barela noted that state intervention could bring that about.

“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,” he wrote.

At issue is a DPS system known as ProComp that pays teachers and other educators bonuses and incentives on top of a base salary for things such as high student test score, and working in a hard-to-fill position or a high-poverty school.

The disagreement between the district and the union is part financial and part philosophical. The union wants to shrink the sizes of the bonuses and put more money into base salaries, which it says are more predictable than bonuses that can vary from year to year and school to school.

The district agrees with raising base salaries, but wants to reserve more money for bonuses. For example, district leaders believe incentivizing good teachers to work in high-poverty schools is key to closing test score gaps between more and less privileged students.

The union’s proposal costs at least $5 million more than the district’s most recent proposal, with some analyses estimating the gap to be even larger.

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat Colorado, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

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