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Denver teachers went on strike after failed negotiations with the school district over pay. The district plans to staff schools with administrators and substitutes. (Feb. 11) AP

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DENVER – When Jenna Jones told her third-graders why she planned to join a teacher strike Monday, several students at the predominately low-income school did their best to step up. 

Jones told them she can't afford to live in Denver on her teacher's salary. She commutes every day from Castle Rock, about 20 miles south of the city, to McMeen Elementary School. 

One student left $2 on her desk, she said. A couple of others tried to give her the Chick-fil-A gift cards they'd earned for perfect attendance. She didn't take them, she said, but she was moved. 

Demanding better pay, Jones and her fellow Denver Public Schools teachers picketed on sidewalks and rallied at the Colorado Capitol on Monday, kicking off the 207-school district's first strike in 25 years. The walkout marked the latest in a year of teacher strikes across the nation. 

More than half of DPS teachers – 2,631 of 4,725 – didn't report to school Monday, according to the district. The union said the number of picketing educators was higher, close to 3,800.

Teachers "felt we had to use the last tool in our tool chest" after 15 months of negotiating with the district, said Rob Gould, lead negotiator for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. 

The two sides met Saturday in a last-ditch effort to come to an agreement but were unable to resolve their differences. Negotiations are scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

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"If they don't pay us, shut it down," some chanted at South High School on Monday. "What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!"

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Teachers from Denver Public Schools went on strike for better pay. It's the first one in 25 years in the school district. USA TODAY

As students trickled into the Denver school Monday morning, some stopped to take videos of their teachers. Hundreds of South High School students walked out to join their teachers on picket lines. 

Students know teachers aren’t getting paid enough, senior Dejaune Ellerbee said.

“When we found out teachers were going to strike Monday, we knew we wanted to show that we stand in solidarity,” Ellerbee said. “Without our teachers, this world wouldn’t work.”

Though schools are staffed by substitutes and administrators, the strike will significantly disrupt operations at the 207-school district, which has 90,000 students, administrators acknowledged. Early-childhood classrooms are closed, leaving about 5,000 preschoolers at home.

At East High School, students told The Coloradoan, substitutes gave them packets to fill out Monday. Many students walked out of the school during the strike, they said. Some said they don't think teachers will penalize them.  

Though reporters weren't allowed inside schools Monday, videos shared widely by East High School students showed students crowding the hallways, singing, shouting and dancing while school was in session. 

"It is a problem for our kids to not have their teachers in class," Superintendent Susana Cordova said Monday at a midday news conference. "Safety is the number one concern."

Cordova said she visited about a dozen schools during the strike Monday morning. When asked about the safety of students, Cordova said she saw a "range of conditions" in schools but didn't see any classrooms "where it felt like students weren't safe."

Still, she said, she visited some schools before students were present, and her visits didn't include East High School.

The district planned to make decisions about whether to have class Tuesday on a school-by-school basis, she said.

"Today was an awakening for the district," said Gould, the union negotiator. 

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How will a strike look?

It's unclear exactly how the strike will affect schools and for how long.

Administrators prepared lesson plans and secured substitutes, and they plan to have schools open for at least the first few days of a strike. If the strike lingers on, they might run out of subs and fill-ins.

Some parents planned to keep their kids home in an effort to force the district to compromise faster or in support of the teachers' union

The Denver Public Library offered itself as a safe space for students who aren't going to school this week. Library staff "will offer active and passive programs" to keep students engaged, according to the library's Twitter account. 

The district's student absence policy remains unchanged during the strike, Cordova said. If parents approve the absence, such as with a note, the student is marked "excused." If they don't, the absence is "unexcused." 

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What does this mean for parents and students?

For many parents, a strike won't make a big difference, at least initially. Though administrators said schools won't operate as normal, they are open.

That means kids are expected to attend classes, and meals will be served. After-school activities will run on a school-by-school basis.

The approximately 5,000 preschool kids aren't able to attend because the district couldn't quickly meet state-mandated standards for background checks and qualifications for subs in early-childhood classrooms.

Most meal programs will still operate. Nearly 70 percent of DPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Why are teachers striking?

Denver's teachers are frustrated by what they see as chronic underfunding of public education in Colorado, along with uncertainty in their salaries.

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Their passion for teaching and children may be the only thing keeping them invested in the profession. Spent a day with teachers across America. Jarrad Henderson, USA Today

School administrators tried to help increase pay for some teachers by creating bonuses for high performance, but the union wants to see all teachers get base raises and cost-of-living increases.

A big part of teachers' frustration is with a system known as "ProComp," which rolled out in 2005. ProComp was supposed to help the best teachers earn more money for helping students achieve high test scores or working in troubled schools.

A starting teacher in Denver earns $43,255 a year. The district offered to raise that to $45,500, but teachers want $45,800. ProComp bonuses can add up to $7,000 to a teacher's paycheck.

More: High costs push Colorado teachers to homes farther from their schools

More: 1 in 5 teachers hold a second job to make ends meet

Derek Smith picketed Monday to support his wife, who is a teacher in the district. They have a 1-year-old at home, he said.

“When she gets old enough to go to school, I hope things will have changed a bit,” Smith said.

DPS administrators say it's important to pay teachers well, but they tout the bonus system as the best way to reward teachers.

The bonuses "have not been helpful" in retaining teachers, said Gould, the union negotiator.

Teachers won't be paid during the strike, and other unions are setting up food banks to help.

What's the district's response?

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The district argues the bonus system rewards the best teachers when surplus taxpayer money is limited.

School funding in Colorado is set by legislators, who are limited in how much they can increase the state budget annually. In fall 2018, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have raised taxes on people earning more than $150,000 annually, dedicating the extra money to schools across the state. The measure easily passed in Denver but failed because voters outside the metro area opposed it.

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More: Colorado Legislature struggles to fund schools, so superintendents stepped up in 2018

District officials say each day of a strike will cost about $400,000. They say it's important to pay teachers well, but tout the bonus system as the best way to reward teachers who are either highly effective or who volunteer to work in the lowest-performing schools.

How far apart are the sides in negotiations?

Not far, in the context of the overall budget of about $958 million: about $8 million, Cordova said last week. State officials had urged the two sides to reach a deal before Monday morning.

"A strike is an effort of last resort, and one where the ramifications are immense, unpredictable and costly," the Department of Labor and Employment said in a letter to the district superintendent last week, urging a resolution. "Additional costs will be inflicted upon Denver families should schools not be able to offer full services, and teachers going without wages will also bear the cost burdens of a strike in ways that are difficult to calculate."

Aren’t teachers striking all over the country these days? 

The Denver strike is far from the first over salary in the past year. Teachers have picketed across the U.S., dating back to February 2018. There have been walkouts and demonstrations in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado and Washington state, and most recently in Los Angeles.

The LA strike lasted six days in January and threw the city into chaos as many parents kept their kids home and teachers picketed schools.

The strike was resolved by a deal for a 6 percent raise, a decrease in class sizes, and additional support staff, including librarians and counselors.

The strikes could continue: Teachers in Oakland, California, could walk out this month.

More: Even when teachers strike, Americans give them high grades, poll shows. Unions fare worse.

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