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Gov. Polis won’t stop Denver teachers’ strike Monday. But here is why he’s worried about fallout.

The Democratic governor warns that such a strike could hurt a ballot campaign for more education and road money

Gov. Jarod Polis greets the press as he hosts his first news conference in his office inside the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday said he will not intervene to prevent a teacher strike Monday in Denver, saying an eleventh-hour deal is possible to prevent picket lines in Colorado’s largest school district.

“What I’ve told both sides is: This will end with an agreement. We should try to deliver that same agreement now, before we lead the district through and students through a disruptive strike, rather than after,” he said.

Polis warned that the fallout from a teacher strike would extend well beyond the school district’s boundaries and 92,000 students. He said it would hurt his administration’s plan to ask voters for more money to increase teacher pay, repair roads and address other statewide priorities.

“The only real solution to that in our state will be at the ballot box,” he said. “My administration is committed … towards a fiscal solution that will end decades of underinvestment in our schools, helping to ensure we have the resources to repair our roads and invest in our critical infrastructure.”

But a teacher strike, Polis said, would “absolutely” hurt the effort. “The voters of this state do not reward dysfunction and disagreement, and I’ve made this argument to both sides,” he said.

Gov. Jared Polis explains to reporters why his administration has decided not to intervene in the Denver teachers’ strike on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis emphasizes the impacts of a strike

The school district and teachers are locked in a dispute about salaries, pay incentives and the broader compensation system. The teachers on Jan. 22 voted overwhelmingly to strike, but the district asked Polis to intervene, delaying the planned walkout.

The decision not to intervene — which would have put a 180-day hold on a strike — came as the new Democratic governor faced intense political pressure from Colorado lawmakers, labor leaders and the state’s teachers union to let the Denver educators strike. As The Colorado Sun reported, the strike issue is the first major test Polis faces on the issue of education after making it a priority in the campaign and his first month in office.

MORE: Jared Polis injected himself into Denver teacher strike. Now he needs a way out.

But, ultimately, the decision not to intervene came from the state’s labor chief, not Polis. The governor said he supported the move and left open the door to intervention in the future.

Polis also emphasized the impact of a strike, saying it would cost the district money to keep open the schools, pay teachers and “most importantly, there is a disruption to the education of kids.”

The strike would cost the district $400,000 daily, Polis said, representing about 1 to 2 percent of the annual Denver Public Schools budget if it spans a week.

The governor is optimistic about a deal

Polis added that his administration wasn’t intervening because it appears the teachers union and district are close to a resolution, and he urged them to work through the weekend to reach an agreement. The administration’s deadline to announce its decision is Monday, but Polis felt that waiting until then would not have helped.

“Had that occurred, there wouldn’t of been that intervening period of eleventh-hour potential for both sides to come together to resolve their issues before a strike,” Polis said. “The teachers and the district have both told me they’re ready to get back to the negotiating table.”

Polis said areas of agreement have been reached, but the remaining sticking points revolve around incentives for teachers in schools that serve low-income families (the union wants the amount reduced and redistributed) and how the district determines which are its 30 highest-poverty or worst-performing schools.

There is also a $300 difference of opinion on what a classroom teacher’s starting salary should be — with the district wanting it to be at $45,500 — and how educators can enter different pay-scale lanes, depending on their training.

If the situation changes and teachers do strike, Joe Barela, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said it could lead the administration to re-evaluate its decision.

“We will be watching closely as the parties return to the negotiating table,” he said, quoting a letter sent to teachers and the district.

Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, speaks to reporters about the Denver teachers’ strike on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

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

The union on Wednesday applauded Polis’ decision. “No teacher wants to strike; we would rather be teaching students in our classrooms. But when the strike starts, we will be walking for our students,” union president and DPS teacher Henry Roman said in a written statement.  “The district’s revolving door of teacher turnover must stop. DPS must improve teacher pay to keep quality, experienced teachers in Denver classrooms.

Polis has been meeting with representatives of the local teachers union and the district to try to broker a resolution, even before the district requested intervention. The latest talks took place Tuesday.

The negotiations over the next few days will not include Polis, the governor’s office says.

“These differences are minor,” Polis said. “These differences will be bridged in a contract. The question at hand is: Can that contract be delivered and agreed to prior to a strike, or will it take a walkout and a strike to solve it? We hope that for the sake of both sides, that for the sake of families who rely on Denver Public Schools, that both sides can really step up.”

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