AURORA — Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn wants to give teachers at an academically struggling elementary school more money for sticking around.
Paris Elementary School, which is just north of Colfax Avenue in the Original Aurora neighborhood, has suffered some of the district’s highest teacher churn rates during the last five years.
Staff and district leaders believe this is one reason students — who are mostly Latino and black, and come from low-income homes — are earning poor marks on the state’s standardized tests.
As part of a package of school improvement efforts, Munn told teachers last spring they’d receive a stipend — half then, half in the fall — if they were rated effective and returned to Paris for the 2015-2016 school year.
Of 28 teachers at the school, 20 qualified for the incentive by earning effective ratings and returning this year, a district spokeswoman said. Each of them would receive about an extra $1,000 under the plan.
The Aurora Education Association, however, says Munn doesn’t have the authority to pay teachers any amount other than what is specified in the district’s collective bargaining contract. The union filed a formal grievance. An arbitrator agreed with the union in July, but the decision ultimately rests with the school board.
The board is expected to decide Tuesday at its meeting whether the district may move forward with the plan.
In taking up the issue, the school board will do more than decide whether Munn can give teachers retention bonuses. The board also will wrestle with two questions that have vexed policymakers and school districts across the nation: Should teachers be paid more if they are in hard-to-staff schools and should teacher pay be tied to evaluations?
Munn believes he has the authority to pay teachers at Paris more because the district-union contract describes the salary schedule as the “minimum” teachers must be paid.
“I looked at our agreement and under the agreement, in my mind, it was a settled issue,” Munn said. “There’s a whole sort of issues we know we need to bargain. For the things not in the bucket we move ahead. … We’re not trying to go around anybody or go around the agreement. None of this was meant to be an end run around the union.”
Even though the union opposes the plan, it wants to see teachers at Paris receive the stipends they were promised. But before any other promises are made, the district and union must negotiate, said Amy Nichols, the union’s president.
“Very simply, the matter is to us that salaries cannot be unilaterally increased for one group of teachers,” Nichols said. “It has to be negotiated. We would be interested in having this conversation while we have a task force that comprehensively looks at the issue — not just at Paris, but across the district.”
Munn said the Paris Retention Initiative — the district’s name for the bonus pay plan — is a specific solution for a specific problem.
“We don’t have the same issue or same circumstance anywhere else,” Munn said.
In 2012, three out of every 10 teachers decided to leave Paris. In 2013, more than one-third of teachers moved to another school or left the profession. And last school year, more than half the staff was new. In a drastic reversal, this school year nearly three-quarters of the staff returned.
The district has proposed creating a broader system for hard-to-fill positions in district schools. But that has been put on hold, Munn said.
Research has shown that paying teachers more money to stay at schools with difficult working conditions largely hasn’t worked.
“These types of incremental bonuses or raises are not sufficient,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which tracks issues such as teacher pay. “They’re a well-meaning gesture. But they’re not effective.”
Nichols said other issues contribute to a teacher’s decision to leave the classroom.
“Money is nice, money is great,” Nichols said. “But the retention issue is deeper than pay. It’s about having a leader in the building, having a team teacher working together, about feeling supported, and having the resources to meet the needs of the students in their building.”
“I would say nobody, including myself, believes increasing pay by itself is effective,” he said. “It’s in combination with other things you’re doing.”
Other efforts at Paris include a new principal and assistant principal, and more teacher training. The district is also considering including Paris in an effort to free schools from some local and state red-tape.
“I think [the stipend] is probably going to prove an added expense for the district that isn’t going to pay off in higher retention,” Walsh said. “The other things they’re doing there is going to be a larger factor.”
The total for the stipends is about $40,000, according to district documents.
Chalkbeat Colorado made more than a dozen interview requests in person and electronically with teachers at Paris.
Only one, who asked to be identified only as K.C., agreed to speak briefly after school Friday.
“I think we should pay teachers like we pay baseball players,” he said. “If they’re good, pay them more.”
Munn stressed the Paris retention program is not a step toward creating a pay-for-performance model in Aurora.
The state’s three largest school systems — Denver, Jefferson County and Douglas County — all have some variation of a pay-for-performance model. The Harrison School District near Colorado Springs is also considered a national pioneer for linking teacher pay to evaluation ratings.
And under Colorado law, this is the first school year that teachers could lose their non-probationary status if they receive low back-to-back ratings.
But national research on whether linking pay to student outcomes is an effective strategy for better test scores remains mixed.
“If you give teachers more money, they’ll work harder than they already are: That is a false premise,” Nichols said. “Teachers are always working hard — harder than they ever have. What we need to do is pay teachers well to begin with.”