GOLDEN — Negotiations on a new contract between the Jefferson County school district and its teachers union are taking a detour Thursday to hammer out how the district will pay new teachers this fall.
The shift in focus is in response to a district court judge’s order to put on hold a portion of the school district’s compensation plan created last fall. The judge said the district could not — at least for the moment — implement a system that pays new teachers more money than veterans with similar credentials.
The heart of the compensation plan, which was not challenged in court, was designed by Jeffco Public Schools board chairman Ken Witt after the board rejected a fact finder’s report that suggested the district give raises to teachers rated partly effective by a supervisor.
As part of the plan, the district eliminated a salary schedule that gave teachers more money for each year they served in the classroom and as they earned advanced degrees. Raises are now awarded to teachers based solely on annual evaluations.
But the plan approved by the board’s conservative majority left out details about how the district should determine what to pay teachers hired in subsequent years.
District officials attempted to answer that question this spring when they proposed a plan to the board that made Jeffco more competitive with nearby school districts. The plan called for the district to pay educators for their master’s degrees, something Jeffco hasn’t done since 2012. It also would give teachers an additional stipend at schools that serve primarily low-income students of color.
While the entire board approved the portion of the plan that would create wide disparities between some new hires and the district’s veteran teachers, Jefferson County District Court Judge Christopher Zenisek said the plan would be put on hold until a full trial on its legality takes place.
That puts the school district in a holding pattern on hiring new teachers. To be able to move forward with its hiring, the district is seeking a compromise with the Jefferson County Education Association Thursday.
Jeffco’s chief human resource officer Amy Weber made the district’s opening pitch at a bargaining session Monday. There are three main points to her proposal.
First, the new proposal would keep higher salaries for non-classroom based positions that have been hard to fill, including nurses and language pathologists. Another $222,000 would be earmarked to give 38 current employees in those positions raises.
Second, the new proposal creates a salary schedule, which will be used only to determine a teacher’s pay during his or her first year in Jeffco schools, that increases at a rate of 2 percent per year of experience, not 3 percent as originally proposed. The district is still proposing to pay for some advanced degrees.
Finally, Weber’s new proposal recommends that $3 million dollars be used to give raises to some teachers, including those in the early stages of their career and those who earned an advanced degree after the district stopped giving raises for those credentials.
That final point means that some teachers above a certain salary, regardless of his or her rating, would not see a raise this year.
“What we’re trying to do is pump all the available compensation dollars into the front end — for newer teachers — where we’ve known for multiple years that’ we’ve been behind the market,” Weber said during an interview Wednesday.
Jeffco’s proposed budget next year has $5 million earmarked for pay increases.
JCEA officials Monday said they could “work with” Weber’s proposal. However, they had some concerns.
First, the union would prefer that there be a definition of what a hard-to-fill position is rather than a list of positions. That’s because different positions could be hard to fill depending on the year.
Second, they want the district to pay for all advanced degrees, not just those that the district says it believes will improve classroom instruction. The union is also concerned that the district’s human resource department is underestimating the number of teachers who have earned a master’s degree since 2012.
Third, the union said it wants to survey its members on compensation changes before agreeing to any changes.
“It’s important to us that existing employees — at least to a certain level — and incoming employees are treated the same,” JCEA Executive Director Lisa Elliott said Monday.
Weber said closing that gap was the aim of her proposed changes.
“By making this adjustment we’ll see less of the disparity,” she said.
The school board will have to approve any terms agreed upon by district and union teams.
“We have to ensure that we have an effective teacher in every classroom and that we are recognizing and rewarding our best teachers,” said Witt, the board’s chair. “And we have to efficiently apply our limited resources to maximize our student’s achievement. I expect the district and JCEA will work through those issues.”
If a deal can be reached Thursday, negotiations will likely pivot to how all teachers will be compensated in the future.
At an earlier bargaining session the union said it had developed a system that combined evaluations, years of service, advanced degrees, and other factors.
“We’re trying to imagine something different,” said teacher Athena Samuels.
Weber has reiterated many times throughout negotiations that the school board majority’s position is that raises will be based exclusively on evaluations.
The current contract between Jeffco schools and the association ends Aug. 31.