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Teacher bonuses should have been negotiated, according to Aurora’s union and an arbitrator

Students at Aurora Central High School work during a science class in 2015. (Photo By Nic Garcia)
Students at Aurora Central High School work during a science class in 2015. (Photo By Nic Garcia)

An independent review found that the Aurora school district was wrong to have paid certain teachers and other employees a bonus this school year without first negotiating them with the union.

But the Aurora school board this week chose not to uphold the finding, instead asking that the district negotiate with the union any future “long-term incentive program.”

Whether the board’s directive applies to any temporary or one-time incentives is unclear.

The bonuses in question were announced as a pilot program last year and were paid from extra money the district received as a result of rising property values. The district labeled certain teaching and support jobs such as speech pathology as its most difficult positions to fill and then created bonuses to attract and keep employees in those positions.

The goal, according to officials, was to attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, retain more employees, and reduce the district’s need to contract with agencies to help fill those positions.

The issue is important as the district and the union will start negotiating soon on how to use at least $10 million that local voters approved in November for teacher pay.

When the district announced last fall’s pilot program, Superintendent Rico Munn said its outcome could affect how the district will seek to change teacher pay.

The union has agreed to discuss “hard to staff” positions in this year’s negotiations.

Incentive payments are at the heart of the Denver school district’s disagreement with its teachers union, which has voted to go on strike.

One Aurora Public Schools teacher who addressed the board this week talked about her struggle with low pay, but thanked the board and the district for their current support of a traditional pay model.

“Thank you for giving your employees some peace of mind in what to expect in coming years,” said teacher Cynthia Breceda. “Let APS be an example to other districts in being competitive and having a predictable salary schedule. I hope Superintendent Munn and the school board will continue to budget our experience steps and educational lanes,” she said, referring to the traditional pay matrix that uses years in the profession and education levels to determine teacher base pay.

School district officials have not provided details as to whether the pilot did help the district fill more positions this year. Asked for comment, the district provided a memo Munn wrote to the board, where he states the issue is now irrelevant, but argues that adopting the report in full would support “a false narrative that APS has been unwilling to negotiate this important issue with AEA,” the teachers union.

The finding by the arbitrator Jon Numair is not binding and instead represented a recommendation to the school board based on the union contract, labor law, and decisions in other labor disputes. The board’s decision not to accept the report in its entirety leaves some open questions.

Union President Bruce Wilcox, said the association is “deeply saddened” by the board’s decision, and said he will raise the issue at the next school board meeting. In previous comments to the board he called this an example of the district’s pattern, which the board should condemn.

When board members made the decision Tuesday, they did not discuss in public their reasoning, but the fact that one member was absent may have played a role.

“After full discussion and deliberating on the issue, the board cannot come to an agreement as to whether to uphold or overturn the arbitrator’s reasoning,” board President Marques Ivey said. “The board will not formally take any action upholding or overturning the arbitrator’s reasoning, but will affirm that the long-term implementation of an incentive program going forward should be negotiated.”

According to the arbitrator’s report, the district reportedly argued that it did not have to negotiate the bonuses because the union didn’t specifically ask to negotiate them, because they were temporary payments, and because they could not be considered a wage.

The arbitrator was not convinced by those arguments and cited other legal cases, including one in Denver, to support the union.

The arbitrator also pointed out that Aurora district officials attempted to negotiate the same topic during bargaining in 2016, but the two groups did not come to an agreement.

“An argument can be made they unilaterally attempted to impose a condition of employment they were unable to negotiate for,” the arbitrator’s report states.

The arbitrator’s recommendation was that the district “immediately cease and desist from further implementation of the recruitment and retention program,” and that “in the future, the district must bargain over this or any program which changes conditions of employment.”

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