David Zalubowski / AP
Published Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 | 7:07 a.m.
Updated Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 | 3:03 p.m.
DENVER — Striking teachers picketed outside of schools and marched through Denver's streets Monday as car horns blared in support of the latest U.S. walkout amid a swell of educator activism in at least a half-dozen states over the last year.
Just over half of the 4,725 teachers called in absent for Denver's first strike in 25 years. Some students crossed picket lines to get to class as schools remained open with administrators and substitute teachers.
In one school, students danced and chanted in the hallways as they walked out to demonstrate to support their teachers. Other students joined hundreds of teachers and union members in a march past City Hall.
Science teacher Abraham Cespedes said Denver educators were empowered by recent teacher activism elsewhere around the country. "By us doing this we finally became united," he said.
The strike affecting about 71,000 students in Denver comes about a year after West Virginia teachers launched the national "Red4Ed" movement with a nine-day strike in which they won 5 percent pay raises.
There have since been walkouts in Washington state, Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Most recently, Los Angeles teachers staged a six-day strike last month. That walkout ended when teachers received a 6-percent raise and promises of smaller class sizes and the addition of more nurses and counselors.
The head of the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, told several thousand cheering Denver teachers and supporters Monday they will prevail.
"You are unique here in Denver because you are just saying, 'Can I just know what I'm being paid?'" Lily Eskelsen Garcia declared at a rally outside the state Capitol.
The dispute is over the school district's incentive-based pay system. The city's school district gives bonuses ranging from $1,500 to $3,000 a year to teachers who work with students from low-income families, in schools that are designated high priority or in positions that are considered hard to staff, such as special education or speech language pathology.
The union is pushing to lower or eliminate some of those bonuses to free up more money for overall teacher pay.
The district sees the disputed bonuses as key to boosting the academic performance of poor and minority students. Teachers say the reliance on bonuses leads to high turnover, which they say hurts students, and that spending money on smaller class sizes and adding support staff, like counselors, is the best way to help disadvantaged students.
Some teachers became ineligible for bonuses after their schools lost their official low-income status because parts of the city are undergoing gentrification.
The district has proposed raising starting pay from $43,255 to $45,500 a year. That's $300 a year less than the union's proposal, which would add $50 million a year to teacher base pay, according to union officials.
At a news conference, district Superintendent Susana Cordova said negotiations will resume on Tuesday, an announcement confirmed by the union.
"It is a problem for our kids not to have their teachers in class," Cordova said. "I want to get this done now. So I'm very happy that we will be back at the table."
State House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Democrat, said the strike underscores the need for lawmakers to fix conflicting laws that restrict state public school spending by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The state says a walkout will cost about $400,000 a day and would consume 1 to 2 percent of the district's annual operating budget in about a week.
The strike happened after Gov. Jared Polis's administration decided last week not to get involved, believing administrators and teachers were close to an agreement.
However, Polis, a Democrat, said the state could intervene and suspend the strike for up to 180 days if the walkout drags on. The state does not have the power to impose any deal on either side. But it can try to help both sides reach a deal and can require them participate in a fact-finding process.
Associated Press writers James Anderson and Kathleen Foody in Denver contributed to this report.