Districts and unions settling earlier, for less

Colorado school districts and their teachers’ unions are settling contract talks earlier this year as record cuts in state education funding leave little room for negotiations – or raises.

In some districts, teacher paychecks will grow by a few dollars in 2010-11 as districts follow through on increases earned for another year of work and the completion of more college credits.

But even those annual bumps in pay, which commonly range from 2 to 3 percent and which are a given in better budget years, have been whittled down in seven of the state’s ten largest school districts.

Teachers in Cherry Creek agreed to cut their experience bumps to .5 percent. In Denver and the Adams Five Star districts, teachers agreed to delay those increases for months to ease the financial burden.

And in Douglas County and St. Vrain, teachers expect no increases at all for an additional year of work.

“I think it is fair to say that overall, teacher salaries are being frozen,” said Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Not just teachers – the minute jumps or static wages likely also apply to classroom aides and principals. It’s common for districts to negotiate a deal with their teachers and then apply its terms to all employee groups.

In some cases, teachers are the only ones getting more money, however slight. All non-instructional staff pay in Cherry Creek was frozen for 2010-11. In Westminster, administrators will make the same pay next year as they did in 2008-09.

Tradeoffs in teacher pay: Englewood, Colorado Springs

Negotiations between districts and unions dragged on for months last year, as district leaders tried to prepare for the darkening budget forecast and union leaders sought to make gains before it really hit.

On Sept. 15, 2009, Education News Colorado reported six of the state’s largest school districts had yet to come to terms for 2009-10. As of June 25, eight of Colorado’s ten biggest districts were already done for 2010-11.

“It’s difficult times and I think people are being pretty straightforward about what’s happening,” said Fallin, who collects data on bargaining statewide. “It feels to me like districts and their associations are having maybe a little more open conversation.”

Scroll down to see details of contracts for the state’s ten largest districts.

Last year’s negotiations typically netted the annual bumps for experience and education plus across-the-board raises to try to match inflation. In Denver, for example, teachers got their earned increases plus a 2.5 percent raise.

But few mentioned such raises for 2010-11 – the focus instead was on the experience bump, the once-sacred “step” for another year of work.

Giving it up, even for one year, is “a pretty big deal” for teachers because it builds over time, said Brian Ewert, a former human resources chief in Douglas County who now runs Englewood schools.

“It impacts your lifetime earnings to not get that step,” Ewert said. “If you annuitize a step over a 30-year career … that can be a significant amount of money.”

It’s also a significant cost for districts, who expect the historic 6.3 percent cut in state education funding they endured for 2010-11 will be repeated for 2011-12.

So districts such as Englewood and Colorado Springs worked with their teachers to trade the permanent “step” for an annual bonus for a year.  In Colorado Springs, teachers will receive a 1 percent stipend. In Englewood, the stipend is .3 percent.

For teachers, the win is that they all get a little something in 2010-11. In those districts, and most others, teachers top out of the experience bumps at 10 or 12 years so veteran educators aren’t helped by “steps” alone.

Such tradeoffs are one example of how districts are working to keep state cuts from hammering their biggest expenditure – their people, who typically consume at least 70 percent of their budgets.

But the strategies weren’t able to stop, in many districts, the loss of jobs and the pain of furlough days.

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New teachers hit hardest: Douglas County

Fallin said the CEA has received no notices of layoffs for teachers with more than three years of experience –those whose jobs are protected by state law.

That means districts are cutting positions through normal attrition and shedding teachers on one-year-only or probationary contracts, indicating less than three years in the classroom.

“Temps, probationaries and anybody who goes away – retirement, maternity, whatever sort of leave – is probably not going to be replaced,” Fallin said. “It will be very specialized jobs that will be posted and hired, I think, in districts …

“Teachers just coming out of college are probably going to be hard-pressed to find jobs.”

Districts across the state reported jobs gone – Las Animas, a tiny district east of Pueblo, cut nine teachers. Westminster trimmed 16 instructional staff and won’t fill four administrative vacancies, including chief academic officer. Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, eliminated 136 jobs, including 68 teachers.

But it is Douglas County, the affluent suburban district sandwiched between Denver and Colorado Springs, that appears to have taken the hardest hit.

The 60,000-student district initially estimated 380 jobs would be lost, with half of those teachers and the rest clerical and support staff.

“Teachers just coming out of college are probably going to be hard-pressed to find jobs.”

Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman, Colorado Education Association

Doug Hartman, the district’s human resources director, said Friday that the district wound up non-renewing the contracts of 176 temporary and 118 probationary teachers – a total of 294.

More than half of those, or 164, were able to find other teaching slots in the district, he said. That leaves 130 teachers still searching. It’s unlikely they will all find jobs in Douglas County.

“We will be doing some hiring,” Hartman said, “but probably not 130.”

The district does have some vacancies – on Friday, its website listed openings for 13 teaching jobs, three administrators and 22 clerical and support staff.

But nearly all of the teaching vacancies are in traditionally hard-to-fill subjects, such as teaching math, students with special needs and English language learners.

Early retirements ease the pain: Fort Collins, Sheridan

Several districts sought to accelerate their usual attrition with sweetened retirement deals good only in 2009-10.

That proved particularly successful in Fort Collins, which leaders estimated they needed to cut 139 jobs, including 60 certified instructional positions, on the way to trimming $12 million.

Dave Montoya, the district’s budget manager, said 63 employees took the early retirement incentive. Twenty-five were teachers.

“We actually had more people take advantage of it than we were expecting,” he said. “It allowed us to actually have voluntary exits instead of forced exits.”

In Sheridan, a 1,600-student district at Denver’s southwestern tip, district leaders dipped into reserves to fund buyouts, prompting two teachers and two classroom aides to leave earlier.

Early retirements “allowed us to actually have voluntary exits instead of forced exits.”

Dave Montoya, budget manager, Poudre School District

That may not sound like a lot, said Superintendent Mike Clough, but “there’s a great difference” between the salaries of those at the top of the scale and those nearer to the bottom.

Those savings, and more reserves, were used to give Sheridan teachers one of the best contracts for 2010-11 – they received their bumps for experience and education plus a .5 percent raise.

It’s recognition, in part, for the two weeks of training that Sheridan teachers do during the summer. They’re paid for that time, Clough said.

“But still, traditionally for teachers, it’s time off,” he said. “So we think it’s asking a lot of our teachers to step up and do that and they have gladly done so.”

Furlough days for some: Westminster, Littleton, Las Animas

A few districts will implement furlough days in 2010-11, including Westminster, with a single districtwide furlough day, and Littleton Public Schools, where all employees will work two fewer days – and receive two fewer days’ pay.

It’s worse in Las Animas, a high-poverty district of 600 students in southeastern Colorado, where the furlough days will number three.

Superintendent Scott Cuckow said his small district suffered the double blow of the state funding cut and the loss of $800,000 in state and federal grants, which ran out after 2009-10.

“What hurt was letting the people know they no longer have a job because the money is no longer there.”

Scott Cuckow, superintendent, Las Animas School District

The district cut 9 teachers and the equivalent of 8.5 clerical and classroom aide jobs for 2010-11. That leaves 35 teachers.

“I’m not regretting having those grants because they helped us a lot,” Cuckow said. “What hurt was letting the people know they no longer have a job because the money is no longer there.”

He said the district’s elementary school, a 2007 recipient of the state’s “Distinguished School” award for its progress with low-income children, is suffering the most from the job losses.

“We believe that if a child can read by third grade, they’re set up to succeed in life so we really target reading skills K-3,” he said. “There will be a lot less effective strategic interventions for those young kids, that’s what we lost.”

For next year, Cuckow said his board is considering eliminating one of the district’s three administrators – the elementary principal, the high school principal or the superintendent.

Worrying about worse in 2011-12: Mapleton, Boulder

Teachers in Mapleton Public Schools, just north of Denver, likely hope it doesn’t get any tougher than 2009-10. Pay was frozen for all employees and the district shut down for five days to save money.

But this fall, thanks to voters who approved a tax hike last November, teachers and other workers will see a 2.5 percent increase to their base pay. Increases for experience and education, though, will not be funded.

Leaders in several other districts are mulling a tax increase in hopes of easing the financial stress in 2011-12.

In Littleton, board members voted June 10 to place a tax question before voters this fall, hoping to generate $12 million a year. Boulder board members informally agreed June 21 to take similar action, though they’re still deciding how much of a tax hike they’ll seek.

“It is evident that the severe economic downturn continues to weigh heavily on the minds of Douglas County voters.”

John Carson, president, Douglas County school board

One of the districts struggling the most with funding cuts, however, has opted not to pursue the ballot option. Douglas County board members made the decision after a survey of likely voters showed it was likely to fail.

“It is evident that the severe economic downturn continues to weigh heavily on the minds of Douglas County voters,” board president John Carson wrote this month in a letter to his community. “Continued shared sacrifice is necessary …

“While we are hopeful for a 2011 election, the board also recognizes that if public sentiment and current economic conditions do not improve, it may be imprudent to ask our community for additional funds in 2011 as well.”  

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.