Relationship Building

New Aurora union president: We need to look out for young teachers, improve relations with the district

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Bruce Wilcox is settling in as the new president of the Aurora teachers union at a crucial time.

Aurora Public Schools is coping with budget challenges and declining student enrollment. Teachers are concerned about growing class size, their pay and more.

Meanwhile, a school board election this fall could change the direction of the 41,000-student district, which has undertaken a number of reforms to improve student achievement.

The union has opposed some of the reform efforts — including bringing high-performing Denver charter network DSST to Aurora — but to little effect.

Still, Wilcox said he hopes to forge a more cooperative relationship with district leaders.

Bruce Wilcox (Handout photo)

Wilcox has held various positions with the district. He started working in Aurora as a paraprofessional and then spent 17 years as an elementary school teacher. He also has worked in district positions helping run programs in multiple schools.

Wilcox has attended meetings all over the district to hear from teachers and employees as he begins his term. He sat down with Chalkbeat to discuss the state of the district and the union:

Why did you decide to take this leadership role with the union?
I think we need to do so much more together. I know that was what I believe was Amy Nichols’ (his predecessor) intention — for us to work collaboratively with the district. I think I wanted to make sure that continued and hopefully that it improved. It’s so critical that we take the young teachers that we have and develop them into long-range teachers — the long-term teachers that stay with our district and have a great relationship with our district. Right now, I just see a lot of turnover.

What do you think of the current relationship between the district and its teachers?
I think it’s a condition that can be improved. There are three sides to this. There are teachers, administrators and then there’s the district level, all of which want what’s best for kids, and all of which want to improve the outcomes for kids. I just don’t think right now we’re all working together to do that.

What do you think are the major challenges facing Aurora schools right now?
I think teacher retention and development is a huge one. The biggest challenge with our student base is the declining enrollment, which affects teacher retention, which affects the ability of the district and the association and teachers to get better at what we do.

Do you have goals for what you would ideally like to change or accomplish in this role?
As far as the organization itself goes, that we move into a role where we are more supportive of our younger teachers. That we take on some of the professional development the district isn’t able to do, or isn’t doing, so that we can develop those young teachers, develop those new teachers. Or take teachers who are struggling but who may not be new, and help them all become the best they can be. That we advocate for the best learning conditions for our students.

What are your thoughts on the budget problems the district is facing with decreasing enrollment and the process the district used this last school year to solicit input?
As far as the solicitation of input, I don’t know how effective that was in getting to everyone. It’s one thing to say we provided opportunities, but then the other is what effect that input really had. There may be another source of input that outweighed it, so that’s a concern. As far as the budget itself, last year was particularly difficult because of the reduction in force. We attempted to work with the district last year in formalizing that process. It is in the agreement and in state statute. There is some area where I believe it is vague and as a district and an association we should be able to come to agreeable terms. Right now I believe there’s some room for arbitrary decisions that we need to remove in order to be fair.

Part of Aurora’s reforms have included adding charter schools, including DSST, which the school board just approved. Many teachers spoke at board meetings against that charter. Do you also feel it was a bad idea to bring the school? And if so, why?
I was one of those people who spoke at that meeting. There is obvious concern that we are bringing in a school, and that we don’t know how it fits into the long-range plan.

We also are at a point where we’re seeing a declining student enrollment and now you’re going to be bringing in a charter school which will decrease not the overall district enrollment but certainly the enrollment to the traditional piece of the Aurora Public Schools. In addition, DSST was the second school that’s being brought in different from past practice, so I would say I have more of an objection to how it came. Charter schools in the past have had to find their own location. Now we are saying that we have placed into the bond money to assist in building that building (for DSST). In the past if charter schools wished to come to the Aurora, they applied. In this particular case the district, the superintendent, reached out to them. I think there are some concerns about the process that was used.

Charter schools do not have the same public accountability that traditional schools do. They also do not have the same constraints, so they operate much differently.

The board had some discussion early last school year about the fact that per a new contract, teachers in Aurora received a pay raise, while the district was planning serious budget cuts. Do you think the pay raises were necessary, and if so, what’s the proper way to find balance between those needs and the needs for budget cuts?
That’s a much bigger issue and I think if we want to ask about should teachers receive pay raises, we should also ask how money has been spent in the district in general. We need to look at the big picture. If you want to retain teachers, then you have to have a means by which to pay teachers and to retain them and reward them for the service that they have.

We’ve had two pay freezes where we did not get steps and lanes (annual pay increases for years of experience or added education), something that is in the contract. We negotiate salary every year, and so those steps and lanes are not guaranteed just by being in the contract.

We understand there are tough economic times but it seems as if the increase or decrease of compensation for employees, and that’s all groups, seems to be the last thing the district considers in the budget.

Do you really think it’s becoming attractive for Aurora teachers to leave for other districts?
It’s certainly attractive to leave Aurora for other districts if you are concerned there are going to be pay freezes. If you are going to get those incremental increases in other districts and you’re not going to get them here, that certainly makes it attractive for some teachers to leave the district. The biggest thing here is the cost of living in the city of Aurora. By the numbers that were given (by district officials at a board meeting) our first and second year teachers cannot afford to live in the town they work in without economic hardship. So certainly if they have any kind of student loan it makes it extremely difficult for them to live here.

As prices increase, it affects not only our families but it affects our young teachers who are at the beginning of their careers. I have an awful lot of younger teachers who work multiple jobs. They don’t take summers off. They just get a different position for the summer. They work two jobs during the year so they can pay student loans and afford to live. So I think compensation is a huge issue. It’s a large reason people stay or leave. And whenever we don’t have stability in how we compensate our people, then it creates this doubt.

Is the job of Aurora teachers also changing?
Our population of students depending on where you are in the district is always in flux, which is always requiring teachers to learn and adapt, to acquire new skills and to do things that certainly I didn’t have to do 20 years ago when I started. Now I need to be knowledgeable about mental health and well-being of students. I need to know the resources that are available in order to do what’s best for my students.

The other thing we’re going to see is increasing class sizes as a result of the reduction in force. We really don’t know what that’s going to look like. The district will adjust as student counts are different than they anticipated.

When you have a classroom and you increase it in size that adds a lot of work. It’s not just that you have to prepare for more students. You have to prepare for more students that are at different levels of need.

superintendent forum

‘Low pay and low prestige’: How Colorado superintendents want to lift the teaching profession

Thursday's panel (photo by Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat)

The teaching profession, says Bree Lessar, has become “low-pay and low-prestige.”

Professionals in other fields — like architecture, law and medicine — get plenty of support starting off, said Lessar, superintendent of southern Colorado’s LaVeta school district. New teachers “get the most difficult classrooms and kids, and not a lot of resources,” she said.

Lessar needs more than mountain views to attract educators to the 220-student district nearly three hours from Denver. So the district offers what incentives it can: First-year teachers get two planning periods, to better prepare. One-third of the district’s teachers are retired, and there’s talk of exploring ways for the experienced hands to mentor the newcomers.

And yet …

“Superintendents out in the field in Colorado are exercising creativity already,” Lessar said Thursday at the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition’s annual Superintendent Forum. “There needs to be a comprehensive funding solution throughout the state. To build the political will and public will for that, we need to think beyond education alone and think about the economic prosperity we want to see throughout Colorado.”

Lessar was part of a panel of a half-dozen superintendents from rural, suburban and urban areas who joined the heads of the two state education departments to discuss a pressing, timely topic: How to address teacher shortage challenges in Colorado.

Just last week, the Colorado Department of Education and Department of Higher Education released a strategic plan, mandated by lawmakers, to come up with possible solutions.

Here are three big themes that emerged from Thursday’s forum:

Takeaway No 1.: The numbers don’t lie … Colorado, we have a problem

Over the past five years, Colorado has seen a nearly 23 percent dip in the number of students completing education preparation programs in Colorado colleges and universities. Growth in non-traditional paths — such as teacher residencies — hasn’t made up the difference.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes cited a number of factors for the decline — stress, salaries, baby boomers starting to retire, and support and working conditions for teachers starting out.

Transparency about test scores and district performance also is playing a role in perceptions of the profession, said Kermit Snyder, superintendent of the Rocky Ford School District.

“I think that transparency is necessary, but along with it has come a lot of criticisms,” Snyder said. “So teachers really get a beating sometimes … Then the message to students is, ‘It’s a tough profession, you don’t want to be a teacher.’”

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said some believe teaching “is a job that anyone can do,” and that filters down to decisions about funding and public policy.

Not every corner of the state faces a shortage. The Adams 12 district had a less than 1 percent vacancy in its teaching corps this year, Superintendent Chris Gdowski said. He credited a bonus system for hard-to-fill positions and a new salary schedule for psychologists, speech and language pathologists and similar positions to better compete with the private sector.

Takeaway No. 2: There is no silver bullet — but better pay is on a lot of people’s minds

Pressed to come up with one thing that would make the biggest difference to ease the teacher shortage, the heads of the state’s two education agencies passed, for good reason.

The strategic plan released last week detailed more than 30 strategies ranging from student loan forgiveness and housing incentives to extra pay to attract teachers to rural areas.

“We do know there is no silver bullet,” said Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the higher education department. However, Hunter Reed identified one step as the hardest: “To get our teachers to the cost-of-living wage. It’s critical.” The issue is especially pronounced in Colorado’s rural areas, where 95 percent of teachers salaries are below the cost of living, according to the state.

The strategic plan calls for the state to explore setting a minimum salary for educators pegged to the cost of living in their districts. Snyder, of Rocky Ford, questioned how well that would work, and others wondered how that would prevent better-off districts from cherry-picking strong candidates.

After the forum, Chalkbeat caught up with state lawmakers in attendance to gauge their interest in minimum teacher salaries — something the legislature would need to take up.

“I’m not sure,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and a former social studies teacher who sits on the Senate Education Committee. “The salary piece is important. But talking about the respect, and the opportunities for professional development for teachers is key, and supporting the hard work our teachers are doing every day — making clear this is a noble profession. We need to bring that out at a higher level. It’s not just about the dollar.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Education Committee, said he thinks the idea is viable and worthy of discussion.

Noting one superintendent’s remark about younger teachers not being as focused on retirement benefits, Hill connected the proposal to another discussion about reforms to the state’s troubled public pension system, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA.

“Can we set aside a bucket of this money that could make teachers whole on their salary but that doesn’t incur new PERA obligations as well?” he said. “It’s really shifting our conversation from, ‘What did the economy, and what did hiring and employment look like 20 or 30 years ago, to what does it look like in the 21st century?’”

Takeaway No. 3: It always comes back to money …

So about that “comprehensive funding situation” Lessar, the LaVeta superintendent, yearns for … As you would expect, she was not alone in expressing that wish.

Time and again, superintendents brought up Colorado’s failure to adequately or equitably fund schools. The state consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in funding K-12 education.

“Nobody says we just want to be average,” said Cherry Creek Superintendent Harry Bull. “Yet in the context of funding, our aspirational goal as superintendents would be to just get to the national average. That would make a substantial difference.”

Multiple efforts to stave off a financial crisis for Colorado schools are underway, including a group of superintendents that has been working on a proposed solution for school funding. A state task force, meanwhile, is charged with reimagining the state’s public school system, with asking voters to approve more money for schools being one possible outcome.

In Colorado, school districts that are able to convince local taxpayers to raise taxes to support schools have a considerable advantage — including in recruiting and keeping teachers.

“We’ve got to move way from this system that allows local (districts) to super-size their funding so much that their next door neighbors cannot compete adequately for staff,” said Gdowski, of Adams 12.

Mr. (Board) President

Telluride’s Paul Reich taking over as Colorado Association of School Boards board president

Paul Reich

The association representing Colorado school boards is about to have a new board president.

Paul Reich, a member of the Telluride school board since 2011, on Jan. 1 will take over as board president of the Colorado Association of School Boards, a powerful voice in state education policy.

“Paul is a steady hand but leads with his heart,” Carrie Warren-Gully, the outgoing board president, said at the organization’s annual convention earlier this month. “Paul is thoughtful, but speaks with passion. Paul is organized but is flexible, and Paul has a vision and will work to involve us all.”

The school board association represents and advocates for more than 1,000 Colorado school board members and superintendents at the statehouse and other policy arenas. It also provides services, information and training programs to support school board members as they govern.

Reich and his wife, Christine, own two retail stores in Telluride. Their five children attend or have graduated from Telluride Public Schools. Reich also works as the behavioral health program manager for Tri-County Health Network, focusing on reducing the stigma of mental illness, expanding access to care in the region, and advocating on behalf of mental health services in his community and in the state, according to a statement from the association.

Reich also serves as secretary of the board for the Center for Mental Health, the mental health provider for a six-county region; and on the Telluride Commission for Community Assistance, Arts and Special Events. He has a bachelor’s in history from Grinnell College in Iowa.

Reich gave a stirring speech at a meeting of school board association members earlier this year, calling for an end to the “attack” on public schools. He told Chalkbeat that he hopes the state’s next governor will help change the conversation about the state’s schools.