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Gov. Romer Steps In To Mediate Denver Strike

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Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado appeared close to brokering a deal late last week between public school officials in Denver and the local teachers' union, whose dispute over the powers assigned to local school councils had erupted in a strike.

The teachers' walkout last week was Denver's first since 1969. An estimated 2,500 teachers were on the picket lines, and nearly a third of the district's 62,000 students were absent despite the district's decision to keep schools open.

State labor officials who already had intervened in the dispute were unsuccessful in seeking a court order declaring the strike illegal. A district court judge ruled last week that "no irreparable damage was being done" by the striking teachers, Patty Murphy, a spokeswoman for Superintendent Irv Moskowitz, said.

Although no serious disruptions were reported at schools with protests, participants said the atmosphere was charged. News reports said some teachers pounded on cars or exchanged words with substitutes or nonstriking teachers as they arrived at schools.

The drama was heightened last week when Governor Romer entered the fray, meeting with school and union leaders late into the night. It was the second time he had intervened in the district's labor troubles since 1990.

"What the Governor came out and said is he has a legal and moral obligation to get these kids taught--and right now that's not happening," Matt Sugar, his deputy press secretary, said.

By the second day of closed-door sessions, the Governor had moved the two sides to agreement on five of the seven issues that caused the impasse, Mr. Sugar said. No other details were released.

Union Security

In contract negotiations, the Denver Classroom Teachers' Association was pushing to expand its power on the councils that govern individual schools. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

The councils--created under the 1990 contract brokered by Governor Romer--are made up of parents, teachers, the principal, and a member of the business community.

Teachers were given more decisionmaking authority on campus as a result of that pact, but some of their union protections were abolished.

Union officials are now asking that some of their authority be returned. For instance, they have proposed that one of the teacher seats on the councils be set aside for a union representative.

The union also urged the district to strip principals of their power to veto council decisions.

Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association who was helping the local union last week, said teachers want such issues as guaranteed planning time, the length of the workweek, and the assignment of nonteaching duties to be decided by the union--not the local school councils.

"Those are pretty traditional contract issues," she said. "They're a major concern because teachers don't have any security or sense of what's going to happen to them" if the councils have control.

The Denver local has urged that the councils focus instead on student achievement. Otherwise, "some people said they muck around" in too many other issues, Ms. Fallin said.

The district has proposed that the local school councils be changed only by adding another spot for a parent.

John Donlon, the state labor director whose compromise agreement was rejected by the union this month, has also insisted that the councils be preserved.

"The bottom line is whether we move back to a union-control situation or we collaborate," Ms. Murphy, the district spokeswoman, said.

Holding the Line

Some teachers in the district said morale has been low for several years because of budget problems and disagreements over contract issues.

Last year, for example, hundreds of teachers called in sick to protest the district's failure to include a 3.5 percent raise in its 1993-94 budget.

Now, the union is asking for a 2 percent pay raise this fall and another in January. Union leaders said that their salary package would cost about $6 million, compared with the district's $4 million offer.

"Our salaries aren't even reflective of the cost of living," Rhonda Moberg, a kindergarten teacher who was on strike, said.

Ms. Moberg added that teachers were pessimistic about the district's delivering any significant raises.

"But we're hoping that at least we'll have better working conditions," she said. "We'll hold the line there."

The union has also asked that class size be capped at 35 students, Ms. Fallin said.

Most teachers are hopeful the situation in the district will improve, Ms. Moberg said, and believe the judge's decision to rule the strike legal showed "that someone is on our side."

Teachers said more of their colleagues joined the walkout after the decision was handed down.

Union leaders said the district's estimate of the number of strikers was probably low, noting that they believed closer to 3,000 of the schools' 3,800 teachers took part in the picketing last week.

Ms. Murphy said middle schools and high schools in the district were "hit the hardest" by the strike because more teachers there tend to be active in the union.

The district brought in more than a thousand substitute teachers but had to merge some classes because schools were still understaffed, she added.

Leonard Fox, the president of the union, had urged parents of young children to keep them at home last week.

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