APS teacher union contract pushes heavy lifting to next year

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AURORA |  Teacher union leadership has laid out its priorities for its ongoing contract negotiations with Aurora Public Schools, but promised pay scale revisions have been kicked to next year’s negotiation, according to the union.

Teachers are focusing instead on policy changes they say should be part of 2019-2020 contracts in the school district with the highest teacher turnover rate and the second-lowest average pay among the Denver metroplex’s biggest school districts.

Union leaders say the rising cost of living and comparatively lower pay sends a shrinking pool of potential teachers to other school districts. The union says negotiations, however, began too late to overhaul the teacher pay scale with remaining funds from a mill levy override voters approved last November – while the district says the plan was always to negotiate the revisions for the following year’s contracts.

About $9 million was slated for revised salaries to keep teachers in the district. Instead, those negotiations will take place next year, according to Aurora Education Association President Bruce Wilcox.

APS spokesperson Patti Moon said the district hopes to close negotiations on the new salary schedule by June 30, after the 2019-2020 contract negotiations are expected to close next month. The changes would be implemented some time in 2020, she said, adding that the district always planned with the union to negotiate then.

However, Wilcox said teachers wanted the mill levy funds to go toward salary schedules this year, and that he understood communications with district offices including Superintendent Rico Munn’s to mean that would be the case.

He said union officials pressured district representatives to negotiate for months, to no avail, and he’s not sure that a detailed salary schedule can be sussed out in just over a month of negotiation.

The current negotiations take place just months after APS’s more than 2,200 teachers won an across-the-board 3 percent salary bump with mill levy override funds. The bulk of the $35 million tax override is earmarked for teacher salaries and more mental health staffing in schools.

The impetus for devoting more funding to student mental health could relieve teachers who say they have to work as therapists and counselors for traumatized and troublesome students, in addition to ever-increasing demands.

Moon said APS only brought one item to the bargaining table this year, regarding travel reimbursements.

Wilcox said a union priority is reforming teacher planning rules, which can take up an inordinate amount of time for already time-crunched staff.

Teachers have to create lesson plans in advance to guide instruction in their classrooms. But with students having increasingly individualized needs – for example, five sixth-grade students may be reading at different grade levels, and some may have special instruction requirements – teachers have to plan for all of these scenarios, according to Wilcox.

That devours already precious time, Wilcox said. Many teachers, including some union leaders, work second jobs to make ends meet. That can leave them planning for classes late at night, after a second job.

Wilcox said the union is also very interested in establishing uniform policies district-wide for tracking records of students’ disciplinary issues, such as assaults, disruptions and suspensions.

According to Wilcox, APS schools aren’t aligned with their record-keeping methods, which means a disruptive student can change schools and not receive the special supports that they might need, such as counseling or targeted learning programs.

That could take the strain off teachers managing disruptive students and not knowing what they need, Wilcox said.

He said the district has swatted away some union proposals, saying that the district didn’t want some items spelled out in a contract. Union bargaining leaders have expressed their frustration at school board meetings and implored school board members to visit the bargaining table themselves. The sessions are open to the public.

That frustration is compounded by what teacher advocates say is a dire need for better working conditions and higher pay that impacts not just school staff but educational quality.

Teachers in APS and other schools districts earn more as they become more experienced and earn higher education degrees – a model called a salary schedule.

A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s of arts degree earned about $42,000 this year. A teacher with can receive about $60,000 after 10 years of teaching. On the highest end of the schedule salary, a teacher with a doctorate degree and 42 years of experience could receive over $111,000 a year.

However, APS teachers earned an average of $59,315 this year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education. That’s lower than every major Denver metro district – including Jefferson and Douglas country schools, Adams 12 Five Star and Aurora’s Cherry Creek School District – except for Denver Public Schools itself, where teachers earned an average $58,853.

That discrepancy can be hugely problematic for attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, Wilcox said. Neighboring Cherry Creek schools paid its teachers an average $74,626 a year – a metric that can tempt would-be APS teachers. Plus, Westminster Public Schools just approved a starting salary of over $50,000 a year, Wilcox noted.

The strain is compounded by rents in Aurora rising at some of the fastest rates in the country, The Sentinel reported earlier this month.

Wilcox said the trade-offs of working in an increasingly expensive district with a relatively high proportion of impoverished students for low pay isn’t very attractive to young would-be teachers with student loans, and a challenge to retaining teachers.

APS has the highest teacher turnover rate of the major Denver metro districts as well: About 21.6 percent of teacher positions changed hands last year, according to CDE data. That’s compared with 20.9 percent in Denver, about 17 percent in Adams 12, 14 percent in Jefferson County and 9 percent in Cherry Creek.

Turnover was higher in Commerce City’s Adams 14 school district, however, at a rate of over 26 percent.

Wilcox said there’s currently a shortage of secondary-level science and math teachers.

He said the AEA is hoping to negotiate revised salary schedules after a contract is likely finalized next month.