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Denver teachers and union representatives rally at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 30, 2018, as a strike looms. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

From the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday, Denver teachers demanded better wages and affirmed their intent to strike — a message aimed not just at the school district but also Gov. Jared Polis.

“Hey Polis, do what’s right, join our teachers, in our fight,” the crowd of hundreds chanted just outside the governor’s office window.

The rally punctuated the political pressure on the new Colorado governor, who two weeks into his term inserted himself into the middle of an intense, five-year contract dispute in the state’s largest school district before being asked to help.

It’s a precarious situation loaded with significant political risks for the Democrat, who wants to make education the top priority of his first year but who entered office with only tepid support from teachers. But it also offers Polis a chance to reap great rewards — like former Gov. Roy Romer did 25 years ago when he mediated the last Denver strike — if he can help negotiate a deal to keep teachers off the picket lines.

“This is one of the big first tests for a governor who wants to make education important,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents paraprofessionals in Denver and supports the local teacher union’s strike. “It is about reordering priorities … it’s time to make (teachers) a real priority.”

The law gives the Polis administration the authority to intervene to delay a strike for a 180-day period if it “affects the public interest.” The intervention — requested by Denver Public Schools — would make a strike illegal and could subject teachers to jail time and fines. His deadline to make a finding is Feb. 11, but the administration said it expects to reach a decision even sooner.

Supporters of Denver Public Schools teachers rally on the steps of the Capitol Building on Jan. 30, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Political pressure mounts on Polis

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing teachers in the contract negotiations, told the administration to stay out of the dispute, saying that not even “the governor can mend the broken relationship” and intervention is an endorsement of the school district’s “abusive tactics.”

MORE: Gov. Polis prioritizes education in first budget request, but Democratic lawmakers are skeptical.

And Democratic lawmakers are pressuring Polis to let teachers strike. “I would hate to see the governor intervene in the long-held right to collectively bargain and collectively strike,” said Sen. Julie Gonzalez, a Denver Democrat who attended the public contract negotiations, in an interview before the rally. “At the end of the day, any politician — if they don’t respect … their decision to collectively bargain and to strike — undermines the hard work the teachers do daily.”

A decision to intervene would represent a political reversal for Polis, who supported Pueblo’s five-day teacher strike in May. “Proud to stand with our public school teachers in Pueblo,” he wrote on Facebook as he campaigned for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. “Colorado’s teachers have been underpaid and under-appreciated for far too long.”

He doubled down on his support for workers in his State of the State address earlier this month, when he vowed to “protect the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for the pay and benefits that they deserve.”

But a decision to let teachers strike is not without pitfalls. It would lead to questions about Polis’ inability to broker a deal and disrupt a district with more than 90,000 students, some of whom rely on schools for meals.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper took a more arm’s-length approach to the Pueblo teacher’s strike and neither side asked him to intervene.

But the situation Polis faces is much more akin to 1994, when Denver teachers went on strike for the first time since 1969. It came a month before the election and Romer, a Democrat who billed himself as a problem solver, made a decision to spend political capital to mediate the situation, despite objections from teachers. He brought both sides into his office and worked into the early morning hours for days to reach an agreement.

“Let me say that this will mean the children will be back in school Tuesday morning,” declared Romer at the time, before cruising to victory despite a big Republican year.

For a new governor, it’s more difficult. “The risk for Polis is that he could make powerful enemies no matter which way this dispute goes,” said Seth Masket, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Denver.

“If he’s seen as being very supportive of the teachers, that could anger some parents’ groups and opponents of unions. If he’s seen as leaning in the other direction, that could alienate some very politically active education groups.

“He managed to get through the primaries last year without massively antagonizing one group or the other,” Masket continued, “but it’s a thorny issue to embrace in his first month in office. Yet it was a difficult one to avoid.”

Abbey Ashby, a teacher at McGlone Academy in Denver, holds a sign at a rally in support of Denver Public Schools teachers rally on the steps of the Capitol Building on Jan. 30, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The narrow path for Polis to avert walkout

In the current dilemma, the teachers believe that the best option is reaching a deal on the remaining disagreements regarding the compensations system before the intervention deadline. The two negotiating teams expect to meet Thursday to resume talks.

Denver teachers voted Jan. 22 by an overwhelming 93 percent to initiate the strike. The next day, Polis called the two sides to the bargaining table “to see if we can play a role in bringing them together,” he said.

It’s not clear what, if any, settlement Polis is proposing to end the dispute, as administration officials declined to provide details of the current conversations.

“The meetings have been information gathering,” said Alexandra Hall, the director of the Division of Labor Standards and Statistics in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

In deciding to intervene, the administration said it would need to find a tool that neither party has considered and argue that the path could lead to a resolution. “Reaching this level of dispute is pretty uncommon,” Hall said.

Teachers unsure whether to trust Polis

Polis’ involvement comes after an election in which he received only lukewarm support from the teachers union, which endorsed his rival Cary Kennedy in the Democratic primary and whose campaign arm ran an attack ad against Polis that his spokeswoman called “desperate.”

The Colorado Education Association later supported Polis after he won the Democratic nomination, but he declined to endorse their ballot measure to raise money for education, which only frustrated teachers.

Polis’ push for full-day kindergarten and more state dollars for education is encouraging to teachers, but the union still wants to see Polis — the founder of a charter school — better “elevate the value of public education.”

“The strike is always the last resort,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the CEA president. “Our hope would be that Gov. Polis listens to the educators … and trusts that they’ve done everything they can and all they have left is a strike.”

Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said he spoke with Polis but remains uncertain on the governor’s commitments. “He expressed that he’s willing to work with us, so we’ll have to see if that actually materializes,” Roman said.

He added: “He has to actually make a real decision. It will be pretty telling for us.”

Updated 2 p.m. Jan. 31, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited the number of students in Denver Public Schools. The correct number is more than 90,000, according to the district.


John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.