Denver teachers march out of classrooms in strike over wages

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Denver public school teachers walked off the job on Monday to demand higher and more predictable wage hikes, disrupting classes for some 92,000 students in the latest of a wave of strikes by U.S. educators over the past year.

The walkout comes the month after a six-day strike by Los Angeles school teachers ended in a deal to reduce class sizes and raise salaries by 6 percent, and follows statewide work stoppages last year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona.

Weekend negotiations between Denver's 5,650-member teachers' union and the school district broke down over a pay scheme the union says has sacrificed dependable wage increases in lieu of limited bonus pay for teachers working in high-poverty areas and challenging classrooms.

The two sides said they planned to return to the bargaining table on Tuesday.

In the meantime, all 207 schools in Colorado's largest school district remained open, staffed by substitute teachers and administration personnel.

Rob Gould, a spokesman for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said that after 15 months of bargaining, the district grew entrenched in its position and "unwilling" to listen.

"We're hoping they come to the table tomorrow ready to listen so we can get back to work, because our teachers want to be in the classrooms with their kids," Gould told a news conference on Monday shortly before the strike began.

Hundreds of teachers and some students weathered sub-freezing temperatures in Denver as they marched through snowy streets chanting and holding protest signs, according to video footage from local media reports and Twitter.

"Marching in #Solidarity with @DenverTeachers this morning," wrote Colorado state Representative Emily Sirota on Twitter. "Incredible support from the community, chanting and honking and bringing supplies."

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district had offered a pay increase of nearly 11 percent next year, which would boost the average salary for teachers to $61,000, from $55,000.

The dispute has centered on a Denver Public Schools incentive pay package offering bonuses for educators to work in hard-to-staff schools and subject areas, or who teach in one of a handful of "distinguished" schools. Administrators say the so-called ProComp incentive system is needed to attract and retain quality educators.

But the union, arguing that such incentives are unpredictable, is seeking a more traditional compensation package with a higher base salary and built-in increases for teachers who further their education or training.

Union and district negotiators deadlocked during a bargaining session on Saturday night, setting the stage for the strike, the first in the city since a five-day walkout in 1994.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)