Denver students, teachers and administrators reflect on the strike

‘When teachers thrive, kids win’

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THE TEACHERS

For teachers Justine Sawyer from South High School and Liv Saetta from Summit Academy in southwest Denver, it was about fighting the Pro-Comp system and where funds were going.

“(I wanted) to expose the loaded central administration and mismanagement of the funds that already exist in our district. They are being severely misallocated,” Sawyer said. “I'm upset as a taxpayer as well. That money is not actually being used for direct instruction for kids.”

Saetta agreed, saying she didn't realize how complicated the Pro-Comp system was until she tried to refinance her house last year.

“I had to give my pay stubs to my lender, who couldn't make heads or tails of it," she said. "I almost lost my house that I had for 18 years. I wasn't able to get as much money because of my base (salary)."

Saetta's parents helped her financially during the strike.

“It was very stressful leading up to it, not knowing is it tomorrow or is it next month?” she said. “In all honesty, if I didn't have my parents, my 85-year-old father helping me out, I'm losing two weeks of groceries a day on strike. If you can't afford to strike, you have to strike.”

Samanthan Agoos, a science teacher at East High School, said that she and her husband saved money for a year in order to prepare for the pay losses during a potential strike. Having these conversations is important, she said, and she worked with her students before the strike to address their concerns. On the professional side, she said she was happy with how negotiations went.

“I thought that DCTA did an excellent job negotiating on behalf of teachers and representing our best interests. I was happy to see that DCTA was able to communicate educators' needs to the district and the district was responsive,” Agoos said. “Now that the strike is resolved, I am hoping that educators will continue to be respected and valued in our communities. Ideally, community members will continue to recognize the crucial role teachers play in shaping the lives of children as well as influencing society.”

THE STUDENTS

Grace Ramsey and Margalit Goldberg are 10th-grade students at South High School. The two attended rally events at Civic Center and picketed at the school in the mornings.

“All the teachers I've had at DPS have been amazing and they deserve more than what they're getting,” Goldberg said. “It shows the district so much when the teachers, students and parents show up.”

Participating in the strike has been a learning experience, one that felt powerful, Ramsey said. “I've learned that unity helps make change and if you work together you can help make something different."

Savannah Arellano and Bella Stevens, 11th-grade students at Denver School for the Arts, said nearly all of their teachers participated in the strike — 52 out of 54. Their teachers often go the extra mile for them, Stevens said.

“They do so much for us, especially with our school, being there until 9 or 10 for rehearsal and stuff,” she said.

Arellano said that while the process of learning about the strike has been chaotic, she's glad she was able to support her teachers.

“It's really messy," she said, "but that's the point.”

THE ADMINISTRATORS

DPS's new superintendent, Susana Cordova, had just started her new role when teachers voted to strike. For her, she said, it was a balancing act of ensuring students were cared for while simultaneously participating in negotiations. It was important to find common ground during the negotiating process.

During the last strike in 1994, Cordova was a teacher on maternity leave. Upon returning to work, she said she could still feel the tension with some teachers. She hopes to use that experience in moving forward after this strike.

“I learned a lot from that experience. Going forward, I know that, as a school district, it will be extremely important for us to focus on the things that unite us and not the things that divide us," she said. "That way, we can create the culture we believe will support our students the most."

Debbie Hearty, chief of human resources at DPS, said the strike showed a larger problem with underfunding for education in Colorado.

“Both teams actually agreed on so much—wanting DPS to be the best place for teachers to thrive because, when teachers thrive, kids win. Both teams supported the creation of a fair and transparent compensation system where all teachers and Specialized Service Providers saw an increase in salary while still honoring the Pro-Comp ballot language,” Hearty said. “The negotiations process revealed just how challenging it is to address years and years of state underfunding in education in one year.”

She hopes the district can use its passionate teachers and leaders to work together for the benefit of students.

“My hope is that we are able to leverage these gifts and generate a renewed sense of optimism and collaboration that results in classrooms and schools where all students thrive,” Hearty said.

Mark Farrandino, chief financial officder at DPS, said the strike was “as far from a normal week as I could imagine.”

“As a former state legislator, I have led and been part of many debates. This was one of the harder negotiations I have been through," he said. "Both sides agreed on the need for a fair and transparent system with more funding. At the same time, the discussions were more around what that looks and feels like in practice. In addition, when we are one of the lowest-funded education systems in the country, it is hard to determine a baseline on compensation for our teachers and other educators.”

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