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Colorado teachers, including many from Denver, rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Colorado teachers, including many from Denver, rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Against a backdrop of protests, teacher contract negotiations in Denver get heated

Buoyed by the energy of recent teacher protests, plus a sizable increase in state education funding, the Denver teachers union is renewing its push to get the school district to agree to a new teacher pay structure.

The union has proposed a salary schedule that would pay the most senior teachers with the highest degrees a base salary of $100,000. District officials said the union’s plan is too expensive, even with the additional state money Denver Public Schools will receive.

That didn’t sit well with teachers who came on May 16 to watch the first negotiation session since the district and the union last met in March. Teachers shouted that after thousands of them marched on the state Capitol in April to demand more money for schools, the state budget is predicted to send $50 million more to Denver next year. Union leaders referenced recent teacher strikes in other districts and said Denver could do the same.

“We got the money!” one teacher hollered. “We just want a little piece of it!”

District officials said most of the additional money – which they calculate will total less than $50 million – will be spent on previously negotiated teacher raises, as well as boosting pay for the district’s lowest-wage workers.

“There’s not new money sitting around or going to other places,” Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino said in an interview.

The two sides are not re-negotiating teacher raises, per se, but rather the structure of the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. Teachers currently earn a base salary based on their level of education and years of experience, how much training they completed the year before, and a yearly performance evaluation based partly on student test scores.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives. This year, for example, teachers who work in schools with high percentages of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578.

Teachers argue that base salaries are too low and the bonuses make their paychecks unpredictable. Those issues are especially difficult to deal with given that housing prices in gentrifying Denver have skyrocketed, they said.

The average Denver teachers earns $57,753 in base salary and incentives, according to the district. A recent study ranked Colorado last among states for the competitiveness of teacher salaries.

“The district needs to pay me a salary that reflects the high cost of living in Denver so that I don’t have to work two jobs and live with my parents,” teacher Kevlyn Walsh told district negotiators.

Walsh, a 29-year-old art teacher at East High School, said she could make more money if she quit teaching and worked full-time at her second job as a restaurant hostess.

Allison Mitchell, a special education teacher at South High School, said the district’s pay scale sends a message to teachers that the district doesn’t value them. That feeling can lead to high turnover, teachers said, which they argued isn’t good for students.

“Do I have to get a sugar daddy to stay in this profession?” Mitchell asked negotiators. “I want you to join with us and help create a pay scale that is lucrative enough that when I tell my students that they should be a teacher, they won’t laugh in my face.”

District senior counsel Michelle Berge calmly tried to explain how the additional state money would be spent. According to Ferrandino, the district will likely get $36 million extra, not $50 million. The $50 million number came from state education officials, who Ferrandino said didn’t take into account declining enrollment and fewer low-income families. State funding is based on student population, with extra money allotted for students from low-income families.

State law requires that some of that $36 million be passed on to independently run charter schools, Ferrandino said. Denver will have more than 60 charter schools next school year, which is more than any other district in Colorado.

The rest of the additional money will go toward employee compensation, Ferrandino said. That includes several million dollars to increase hourly pay for the district’s low-wage workers to help fill those positions in a tight job market, and several million to offset the increased pension contributions teachers will be required to make starting next year. It also includes money for pay raises negotiated last August for a new five-year teachers contract.

Union negotiators questioned how the district could have known during last year’s negotiations that it would get additional money this year. The back-and-forth got heated.

Berge: We knew there was a potential, and that was the only reason we knew we could afford what we agreed to last August. Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association bargaining team: Well, I’m curious about that because you never shared that at the negotiations table. That doesn’t seem like it’s really bargaining in good faith. Berge: We took a huge risk. That’s part of bargaining. We took a risk. Gould: I think you’re taking a risk now by putting out that misinformation. A teacher in the audience, shouting at negotiators: You told us there was no money! You’re telling us now you knew there was money?

Yes, Ferrandino said in an interview. The district, he said, was projecting that Colorado’s booming economy would allow lawmakers to increase school funding this year. He said district officials were “very clear” during negotiations that Denver Public Schools wouldn’t be able to afford the new teachers contract without additional money.

Restructuring the district’s pay-for-performance system the way the union has proposed would take even more money, district officials said. The two sides agreed to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November that would raise $1.6 billion for schools.

But teachers and union leaders said the additional state money should be enough.

“Our teachers felt like that was the promise: You do what you can to get more money, and we’ll do what we can to get teachers a living wage,” said Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director. “I think this is a little bit of bait-and-switch from the district.”

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