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Pay boosts and a prohibition on striking: Inside Denver’s first principals union contract

In a school hall, an elementary principal bends down to look at a student’s hall pass.
Columbine Elementary School Principal Jason Krause looks at a student’s hall pass.
Nicholas Garcia / Chalkbeat

Denver’s first-ever contract with its principals union raises salaries for most school leaders, forbids them from striking, and gives them more input on big district decisions.

Cesar Rivera, the principal at Samuels Elementary and co-president of the Denver School Leaders Association, said he hopes the new agreement results in predictability where there was previously ambiguity, and stability where there was turnover. Denver’s principal turnover rate was 17.5% last year, higher than the state average of 13%, according to state data.

“Retaining the same leader for children or young adults in schools for a longer period of time — I think this agreement will help to do just that,” Rivera said. “It’s not going to be the panacea. It’s not the remedy, but it will help to extend the life of a principal in a number of ways.”

Denver Public Schools recognized its first principals union, the Denver School Leaders Association, in September. The union and district began negotiating a contract in January, and the school board unanimously approved it this month.

The union represents about 315 principals and assistant principals. More than half of them — about 175 school leaders — are members of the union, said Co-President Eric Rowe, principal of PREP Academy high school. All principals and assistant principals who work at district-run schools will benefit from the contract, even if they are not union members.

Highlights from the contract, which goes into effect July 1, include:

  • A salary schedule that ranges from $86,000 for a first-year elementary school assistant principal to $169,420 for a high school principal with 20 or more years of experience and passing ratings on their annual performance evaluations. No salary schedule existed before, resulting in wide pay disparities. The contract will award raises to 88% of school leaders, with 47% getting a boost of more than $10,000.
  • Principals and assistant principals will be eligible for two yearly bonuses. Principals who work at Title I schools, those serving a high percentage of students living in poverty, will get a $5,000 bonus. Assistant principals at Title I schools will get a $3,000 bonus. Most Denver schools are Title I schools. Principals and assistant principals will also get bonuses based on total student enrollment: $3,000 at schools with more than 750 students, and $5,000 at schools with more than 1,000 students.
  • All principals and assistant principals who worked through the end of this past school year will receive a one-time $2,000 bonus next month “for effort and additional duties related to preventing, preparing for, or responding to COVID-19.”
  • Retiring principals and assistant principals who give the district early notice of their decision will get a $1,200 severance payment when they retire.
  • Principals and assistant principals cannot strike.
  • Principals and assistant principals cannot facilitate or cause other employees to strike. If they do, the district will revoke its recognition of the principals union. Principals and assistant principals can support striking employees verbally or in writing, or by providing them food or water as long as doing so doesn’t cause further disruption.
  • The agreement sets up several “collaborative committees” to give the union face time with district decision-makers. This will include monthly meetings between the union president and the superintendent, regional meetings between union representatives and district leaders, and a yearly meeting for the union president and superintendent to discuss school ratings and any schools may be closed or redesigned.

Rowe and Rivera said several aspects of the contract resulted from compromises between the district and the union, including the clause that prohibits principals from striking. Some union members didn’t want to give up that right, but Rowe said that working collaboratively with district leaders may be a more effective means to achieve the union’s ends.

Now that the contract is finalized, Rowe said the real work begins: “There are some things in there that have to be implemented in the right way for us to live out what’s in that agreement.”

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