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Jefferson County teacher contract talks stall

GOLDEN — The Jefferson County school district and its teachers union failed Thursday evening to reach an agreement about how much to pay teachers new to the district in the fall. That means the district potentially won’t be able to fill hundreds of teaching positions at the peak of its hiring season.

Representatives from the school district and union took a detour from bargaining over a new contract to discuss the matter, after a judge put on hold a portion of a compensation system that paid experienced teachers new to Jeffco more than district veterans.

District officials said a new proposal that increases compensation for new hires and gives raises to only about 25 percent of district veterans would make Jeffco Public Schools competitive for the first time in years, especially when vying for teachers early in their careers.

Representatives from the Jefferson County Education Association said it was a slap in the face to veterans who weathered the Great Recession with the suburban Denver school district.

“You’re gonna lose us. You’re gonna lose me. That’s not what is best for kids,” North Arvada Middle School teacher Barb Aswege said during Thursday’s bargaining session. “I will leave if you pay new hires more than me.”

Jeffco’s chief human resource officer Amy Weber told the bargaining team that the district has in the past hired some new teachers with comparable credentials and paid them more than district veterans.

“This is not a new problem that was created with the plan to hire new teachers,” Weber said. “That existed with the old approach.”

JCEA members stressed that the district had to find more money to pay veteran teachers.

Jeffco’s proposed budget for next year allocates about $3 million for raises. That money would be spent quickly by providing raises to district veterans who began their careers after 2010, when the district froze its salary schedule, and for those teachers who earned a master’s degree after 2012, when the district stopped compensating for advanced degrees.

District officials had proposed spending about $5 million left over from the current school year on raises for teachers next year. But the Jeffco school board’s majority decided that all savings from this school year should go toward construction needs.

Chief Financial Officer Kathleen Askelson said the district’s budget is under more than usual pressure from mandates, including $3 million going to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“If I could find more money, I’d be thrilled,” she said during an interview.

The district’s lawyer, Jim Branum, asked union representatives repeatedly to first negotiate a salary schedule to determine how much new hires would make before moving on to how much teachers returning to the district would be paid.

“We do not have the authority to spend the money to address that bigger, broader question,” Branum said.

JCEA said it would meet with district officials after the school board holds a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the budget. The next regularly scheduled negotiating meeting is June 10.

Thursday’s meeting had the largest audience — about 100 teachers and parents — since the school district and union began negotiations in March. The current agreement expires on Aug. 31.

New outlets recently reported that the union has circulated information about what a strike might mean for teachers. A spokesman said the union is focused on negotiating in good faith with the district.