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Districts, unions scramble to settle contracts

Teachers in six of the state’s largest school districts are working under last year’s contracts weeks after the start of school, as negotiations between union and district leaders drag on amidst dismal economic projections.

In Boulder, Greeley and Pueblo City, mediators have been called in and are scheduled this month to sit down with both sides. St. Vrain Valley school district and union officials met Friday in Denver to choose a “fact-finder” to try to resolve their dispute.

And talks continue in Douglas County and Westminster, as yet unaided by a third party.

Meanwhile, recent negotiations in Colorado’s two largest districts – Jefferson County and Denver – appear to have been successful.

Jefferson County teachers ratified a tentative agreement earlier this month and, on Thursday, Jeffco school board members are expected to approve it.

Denver Public Schools teachers are considering their own tentative agreement, reached last week after Superintendent Tom Boasberg asked union leaders to re-open talks on salary and benefits.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, declined Friday to provide details before his members learn about the deal. If teachers approve, Denver school board members would likely vote on the agreement in October.

DPS spokesman Mike Vaughn said Boasberg’s request came “due to reductions in funding received from the state impacting the district’s 2009-10 operating budget.”

State give-and-take affecting contract talks
“In general, districts have said we don’t have the money or we’re going to save the money,” said Deborah Fallin with the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers’ union. “They’re nervous.”

The CEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, represents most Colorado school districts. A notable exception is Douglas County, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

Nervous or not, Fallin said, districts this year received the full 4.9 percent funding increase guaranteed them by Amendment 23, which calls for state spending on K-12 schools to increase annually by inflation by 1 percent. Inflation was 3.9 percent.

“They have that money and they have (federal) stimulus money,” Fallin said. “They have money that was meant to be spent.”

That’s true on paper, some district officials said, but not in reality.

In May, with state revenue projections in the red by hundreds of millions of dollars, state lawmakers agreed to fund the full 4.9 percent. But then they required districts to keep $110 million of the money – or 1.9 percent – in reserve until after Jan. 29, when lawmakers will reassess whether districts get to keep it at all.

In Denver, that means $10.4 million is frozen. And in Boulder, where angry teachers last spring staged sickouts to protest the district’s contract offer, it means $3.8 million is off the table.

“Once that $3.8 million was no longer in play … that really made it, from our point of view, impossible to even phase in a professional salary schedule beginning in the 2009-10 school year,” said Briggs Gamblin, spokesman for the Boulder Valley School District.

The state freeze makes Fallin’s argument “a little bit of a bait and switch,” he said.

“We got that $3.8 million but we can’t spend it, we can’t budget it. Did we really get it?” Gamblin asked. “It shows up on our books but it’s got a state hold on it.”

It also looks increasingly unlikely that the state will be letting go of those dollars. Gov. Bill Ritter last month announced $320 million in cuts this fiscal year and the state is projecting a cumulative revenue shortfall of $838 million through 2012.

“Everybody is nervous about the future,” Fallin said, “but individual school districts are not going to have that much control over it. The state is going to have control and, ultimately, the voters are going to control it …

“There are a lot of expectations among a lot of segments of government … that by 2011, we are going to have to be asking the voters for a tax increase or a revenue enhancement.”

Districts offer stipends, contingencies
Faced with such economic uncertainty, several large districts folded contingencies into their salary agreements with teachers.

In the Adams Five-Star School District, the agreement gives teachers their traditional annual increases for experience and education plus a 1.68 percent cost-of-living increase.

Also, teachers are to receive a .82 percent stipend or bonus in April. But if the state releases the reserve funds, that .82 percent becomes a permanent increase, for a total cost-of-living raise of 2.5 percent.

Janelle Albertson, spokeswoman for Adams Five-Star, said the district made part of the agreement contingent upon the state because it can’t afford the full 2.5 percent increase without the reserve.

“We are looking at about a $15 million cut for next fiscal year,” she said. “We’ve already cut $16 million over the course of the last three years – that’s enough to operate six elementary schools for a full year.”

Similarly, Cherry Creek teachers can expect an additional .5 percent, for a total cost-of-living increase of 2.5 percent, if the state releases the money.

In Jefferson County, teachers would receive a permanent 1 percent cost-of-living raise this month and a 1 percent bonus in November. In April, teachers would get another 1 percent bonus – which would become a permanent increase if the state releases the reserves.

Stipends or bonuses are easier for districts to manage because they don’t become permanent costs. But teachers dislike them because they don’t build their salary base. Boulder teachers overwhelmingly rejected an offer last month that included a 1 percent stipend.

Some districts, though, aren’t giving even stipends or contingencies this year.

Mapleton, the small district north of Denver, is shutting down for a week this school year to save $2 million. Teachers’ pay is frozen at 2008-09 levels and, while they’ll have five more days off around the winter break, the district added ten minutes to other work days to make up for that lost time.

The district is asking voters this fall will approve more building and operating dollars.

“A salary freeze and a district shutdown save a significant amount of money,” said district spokesman Damon Brown, “but there are needs that will continue to go unmet until the district is able to pass a bond issue and a mill levy override.”

Disagreeing about money, priorities

Mapleton lost at the ballot box last November, as did Douglas County and Pueblo City. The two larger districts included dollars for teachers in those failed requests for tax increases.

“If we would have passed the mill-levy override … some senior teachers would have made as much as $13,000 more per year,” said Pueblo spokesman Greg Sinn.

That’s because Pueblo sought to align its teacher pay with that in Brighton, which a survey determined to be most similar in its economic base and the size of the community. Instead, union and district leaders begin mediated talks on Sept. 28.

The difference between mediation and fact-finding is structure. A mediator typically moves back and forth between the two sides, trying to create compromise. In fact-finding, each side presents their case or facts before a selected third party, who then has 30 days or so to issue a non-binding opinion.

Fallin, with the CEA, said each district’s contract spells out the steps to be taken if negotiations stall so there’s no uniformity to when a mediator or a fact-finder is called.

In St. Vrain, for example, district and union leaders already have been to mediation, which didn’t result in an agreement. Now they’re scheduled for fact-finding.

Union leaders already have rejected at least three offers from the district, including a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase in salary and a 1.5 percent salary increase coupled with a 1.5 percent stipend.

They have said they want, instead, a 3 percent cost-of-living salary increase.

“What we have on the table right now … the 2.5 percent is one of the highest a district is offering,” said St. Vrain Valley School Board President Sandi Searls.

That’s possible largely because voters last fall approved a $16.5 million tax increase for operating needs, including $6 million for the recruitment and retention of highly qualified teachers.

Jerri Modrall, president of the St. Vrain Valley Education Association, could not be reach for comment Friday.  But in published reports, she has said that $6 million is an issue. Union leaders say all of it should go toward salary increases; district officials say it also must cover retirement and insurance costs.

“This is not about percentages,” Modrall told the Boulder Daily Camera on Aug. 27. “This is about promises made and broken during the mill levy override campaign.”

Part of the district’s offer includes making up for a pay freeze in 2002, when the district became the first in Colorado history to declare bankruptcy and required a state bailout for its $13.8 million deficit.

Among the costs leading to the deficit were big jumps in teacher pay, with some educators earning raises as high as 25 percent in three years, as board members sought to create what one district document described as “the best teacher salary structure in Colorado.”

“There were very sizable salary increases that had been awarded and they weren’t sustainable,” said Searls, then a new board member. “That was one of the issues.”

She denied, however, that the experience has made St. Vrain board members leery about spending.

“I would say we’re not being overly cautious,” Searls said. “What we are really focused on is being sure that whatever we put on the table, we can sustain.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

Click on a school district’s name to see their teacher salary schedule:

1. Boulder Valley School District: Schedule includes current 2008-09 schedule with comparison to increases under two district offers, since rejected.
2. St. Vrain Valley School District: Schedule for 2008-09, which continues as teachers and union officials work out an agreement for 2009-10.
3. Jefferson County Public School: Tentative schedule for 2009-10. Teachers’ union members have approved it; school board votes Thursday.
4. Douglas County School District: Schedule for 2008-09 is still in place.
5. Denver Public Schools: Traditional schedule for 2008-09; teachers’ union members are considering new agreement.
6. Aurora Public Schools: Schedule for 2009-10; APS is one of the few large districts to settle quickly.
7. Adams Five-Star Schools: Schedule for 2008-09; school board expected to approve 2009-10 schedule this week.
8. Mapleton Public Schools: Schedule for 2009-10 is essentially the same as 2008-09.
9. Cherry Creek School District: Schedule for 2009-10; agreement adds .5 percent if state lawmakers release emergency reserves.
10. Pueblo City Schools: Click on page 48 of contract to see salary schedule for 2008-09.
11. Greeley Public Schools: Schedule for 2008-09 still in effect as teachers and union official continue to negotiate.
12. Westminster Public Schools: Schedule for 2008-09; negotiations for 2009-10 continue.