By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Several thousand Denver public school teachers were expected to walk off the job on Monday in the first strike in Colorado's largest school district in 25 years.
Negotiations between the teachers' union and the school district broke down over the weekend over whether to prioritize general wage increases or incentives for teachers working in high-poverty areas and challenging classrooms.
The school district planned to keep schools open by staffing classes with substitute teachers and administration staff.
Denver is the latest U.S. school district to face labor troubles with its teachers this year. Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest U.S. school district, ended a six-day strike by agreeing to a 6 percent pay raise for teachers, reduced class sizes and other demands.
The dispute has centered on a Denver Public Schools incentive pay package offering bonuses for educators to work in low-income schools or teach difficult subjects. Administrators say it is needed to attract and retain quality educators.
But the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), which considers such incentives unpredictable, prefers a more traditional compensation package with a higher base salary and 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. Both sides blamed each other for the impasse.
"Faced with a smoke-and-mirrors proposal that continues to lack transparency and pushes for failed incentives for some over meaningful base salary for all, the DCTA strike will commence for the schools Denver students deserve," the union, which represents 5,650 teachers, said in a statement.
More than 92,000 students attend Denver public schools.
Denver Public Schools School Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district offered a nearly 11 percent pay increase next year, boosting the average salary for teachers to $61,000, from $55,000.
"Despite the union's refusal to continue negotiating, we remain committed to working with the leadership of the DCTA to end this strike," she said.
Cordova said all of district's 207 schools will hold classes on Monday, but pre-school programs for young children will be canceled during the strike.
The union, which said 93 percent of its members voted to authorize a strike, said teachers will set up picket lines at various schools on Monday. The exact number of teachers planning to participate was not immediately clear.
Union negotiators will not return to the bargaining table until Tuesday, DCTA said.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Bill Berkrot)