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Jeffco union claims board, district overstepped authority creating new pay system

Lawyers for the Jefferson County Education Association Kris Gomez, left, and Michael Belo talk outside the Jefferson County courthouse in Golden. Belo argued the county's school board overreached when it established a new pay system for teachers.
Lawyers for the Jefferson County Education Association Kris Gomez, left, and Michael Belo talk outside the Jefferson County courthouse in Golden. Belo argued the county's school board overreached when it established a new pay system for teachers.
Nicholas Garcia

GOLDEN — A lawyer for the Jefferson County Teachers Association Friday asked a Jefferson County District Court judge to put the brakes on a compensation system that would pay some teachers new to the county’s school district more than its veterans.

Attorney Michael J. Belo told Judge Christopher Zenisek that the Jeffco Public School Board of Education overreached and violated “established labor principles” when it created a new compensation plan for teachers last fall, and that implementation of that plan needs to be put on hold.

Belo argued that the district then unilaterally updated language to its contract with the teachers union and developed a new pay system for experienced newly hired by Jeffco. Instead, he said, the district should have negotiated those terms with the unon.

“From a narrow issue, the district spun out this whole new development [and think] they have the right to get rid of the salary schedule,” Belo said.

The narrow in question is whether teachers rated as partly effective should get raises.

But lawyer Michael Schreiner, representing the district, said the board was well within its rights to create a new compensation system after lengthy negotiations failed to yield a compromise. Updating contract language and introducing a new system to pay veteran teachers new to the school district was procedural and not malicious, Schreiner said.

Belo, the union lawyer, told the judge the district is not asking for the raises veteran teachers received this year to be rolled back, only that the district must negotiate how it plans to pay recently hired teachers in the fall.

Judge Zenisek told both parties he’d issue a decision soon, but warned his docket was heavy in the coming weeks.

Friday’s hearing covered nearly a year of conflict between the union and district over how teachers should be paid. Testimony from three witnesses — JCEA Executive Director Lisa Elliott, Jeffco Chief Human Resource Officer Amy Weber, and teacher Barb Aswege — spanned about three hours.

As part of the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires August 31, the district and JCEA are allowed to negotiate pay each year.

Last spring, the union declared an impasse during those negotiations. Ultimately, the school board, on a split vote, rejected a fact-finder’s recommendation that the district provide pay increases to teachers rated partly effective. That issue had become a sticking point during a second round of negotiations.

Then board president Ken Witt proposed his own pay system that based pay increases on performance reviews, not time in the classroom. Backed by his conservative colleagues, the district began implementing that system which included raising the minimum salary to $38,000 from $33,000.

What wasn’t determined at that time was how the district would pay teachers who joined the district later or how to compensate for advanced degrees.

Jeffco Public Schools’ human resource chief answered those questions this spring with a proposal to the board, which it approved unanimously.

The proposal would pay teachers new to the district with advanced degrees more money than Jeffco veterans even if they’ve spent the same number of years in a classroom. Weber’s aim was to make the district more competitive. Historically, the district has had a difficult time attracting and retaining specialists like speech pathologists because pay was considerably lower than in nearby school districts.

The gap between teachers hired from other districts and Jeffco veterans widened further because Jeffco teachers agreed during the Great Recession to take a pay reduction and to freeze increases based on years of service.

Weber told the board when they approved the plan for new teachers that Jeffco would need to address the pay discrepancies between new and veteran staff soon.

During Friday’s testimony, Jeffco teacher Aswege said that under the proposed compensation plan, a teacher that joins the Jeffco school district with the same masters degree and years of experience will earn about $7,000 more than her.

“My concern is that I will never get that compensation that was lost during the recession,” Aswege said.

Schreiner, the school district lawyer, noted that a similar gap between recently hired teachers and Jeffco veterans persisted under the previous salary schedule as well.

Compensation is just one of many issues the teachers union and school board have battled over since the conservative board majority took office in 2013.

The union, backed by a group of vocal parents, believe the board’s ultimate goal is to break ties with the union and rollout a series of reform efforts that mirror those in Douglas County schools. The union and a coalition of parent organizations have led protests along busy boulevards and created a media campaign that accuses the board of “secrecy, waste, and disrespect.”

The board majority, made up of Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk, maintain they’re carrying out the campaign promises that got them elected by wide margins.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported when the district’s collective bargaining agreement ends. It ends Aug. 31.

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