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Denver teachers union: DPS skirted bargaining rules with new incentive pay program

DCTA and DPS at a bargaining session at Manual High School.
DCTA and DPS at a bargaining session at Manual High School.

Denver’s teachers union is accusing Denver Public Schools of overstepping its bounds by not getting union buy-in before launching a program that pays teachers extra for working in 30 of its highest-need schools.

The grievance filed this week by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association drew a rebuke from DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who in an interview defended the process and said the union has shown “zero flexibility” in finding new ways to attract great teachers to high-poverty schools.

While research has shown that higher pay alone is often not enough to keep teachers from leaving challenging schools, DCTA executive director Pam Shamburg said the union is not opposed to the concept.

However, she said changes such as DPS’s new incentive program “have to be bargained. They just can’t be imposed by the district unilaterally. If (Boasberg) changes his mind tomorrow, they are out the door.”

Boasberg said he was “very disappointed” in the development.

“Our teachers have waited too long for this change,” he said. “Our goal is very simple and very important, which is to get and keep our best teachers in our highest-need schools to close our achievement gaps and give all kids great opportunities.”

The disagreement is the latest between a school district and teachers union in Colorado over changing how teachers are paid. While districts increasingly are eyeing incentive-based reforms — with support from many educators – the conflicts illustrate the challenges of upending a compensation system that traditionally has rewarded teachers’ experience and academic credentials.

Windfall from pension bill

Boasberg announced the program in June alongside Gov. John Hickenlooper at the signing ceremony for a bill that reduces the amount DPS contributes each year to PERA, the state’s retirement fund. That gave the district about $20 million a year of savings to work with.

DPS chose to begin the teacher incentive program with some of that money. Under the plan, more than 1,500 teachers and specialized service providers such as counselors, nurses and social workers at the 30 high-need schools will receive between $2,000 and $4,000 a year extra. Those with higher evaluation ratings would earn the larger bonuses.

Teachers would earn monthly incentives for working in the schools, and a yearly, one-time bonus for returning to work another year. Those payments are on top of another incentive – what teachers earn by serving more than 100 impoverished schools and programs designated as “hard-to-serve” through ProComp, DPS’s teacher pay plan.

Teachers across the district already are scheduled to get a 5.6 percent raise on average this school year.

Boasberg said in adopting the incentive program, “what we have done is fully consistent with (the collective bargaining agreement), with the law, and with extensive precedents in DPS.” District officials say the union’s grievance will not halt the monthly bonuses.

Boasberg said the 30 schools were chosen based on factors including poverty rates, the number of English language learners and students with disabilities, and past academic performance.

A year ago, the district put in place a similar incentive program for principals or school leaders at the same 30 schools. Boasberg said teachers there deserve the same.

A ProComp working group of district officials and teachers recommended similar changes more than a year ago, Boasberg said. And more than eight months ago, a teacher retention task force focused on teachers in high-need schools recommended the incentives, he said.

During ProComp negotiations last school year, DPS proposed paying for the incentives in high-needs schools by reducing bonuses for teachers in schools identified as top performing on the district’s school performance framework. The union fought that idea, and it was abandoned.

Fleeting bonuses?

Shamburg acknowledges that teacher buy-in but maintains the incentives need to be bargained.

“What we are most opposed to is a compensation system that pits teacher against teacher,” she said. “But we also realize there’s a recognition that it’s just a harder job in some locations than it is in others, and we should take a serious look at what it takes for teachers to stay and increase performance at schools that are really challenging.”

At the same time, the union and others question whether what may be fleeting bonuses will prove effective in attracting and keeping teachers at challenging schools. The DCTA is pushing for raising starting teacher salaries to $50,000 — up from $38,765 for those with bachelor’s degrees and $42,538 with master’s degrees – and permanent pay raises.

The tit-for-tat between DPS and the union follows a similar dispute in Aurora over Superintendent Rico Munn’s more modest plan to pay incentives to teachers rated effective or higher who stay at one of the district’s most at-risk elementary schools.

The Aurora Education Association filed a grievance, and an arbitrator agreed with the union that Munn lacked the authority to pay teachers at Paris Elementary anything other that what is spelled out in the district’s collective bargaining agreement.

The school board this week scolded Munn and accepted the arbitrator’s findings, while directing Munn to work with the union to figure out how to pay teachers the incentives they were promised.

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