Aurora’s bonus experiment was mixed for teachers, promising for school psychologists and nurses

An experiment in the Aurora school district of offering up to $3,000 to entice teachers to stay another year has shown mixed results. But the same tactic did seem to help in retaining more school nurses and psychologists, a final report shows.

Aurora officials called the improvements “significant,” in a final report presented to the school board this week.

Offering educators bonuses to improve retention or to reward high performance has been a controversial practice, but research has suggested it can work in certain cases. Schools and districts trying to provide students more mental health assistance struggle with a shortage of professionals, so lessons from Aurora’s limited experiment could be useful.

Krista Klabo, president of the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, said the organization has tried to help increase the pool of school psychologists by recruiting from out of state, increasing the number of trainees, and promoting the job to high school and undergraduate students.

But, Klabo said, the organization also worked this year to make sure school psychologists were among the educators eligible for a bonus from the state, if they are certified by a national board.

In Aurora, a one-time increase in state revenue allowed the district to experiment with the bonus. The experiment used $1.7 million to offer up to $3,000 to teachers at 20 schools, and to some non-teaching staff members across the district, if they committed to returning for the 2018-2019 school year.

Aurora also offered a $2,500 bonus for new teachers at the 20 schools, and for new special service providers, which included nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists.

The district was particularly interested in filling more of those roles by the beginning of the year. Because often the services those specialists provide are mandated for students with special needs, the district often had to pay an outside agency to fill vacant positions after the school year started.

The final report from this week estimates the bonus helped the district spend $165,000 less on contracted services across these four roles compared to in 2017-2018. After accounting for the cost of the bonuses, that would represent a savings of approximately $11,000, according to the report.

Besides the cost savings, students benefit from more experienced teachers, who improve over time, and who can contribute to more stability for a school’s culture.

For now, the Aurora district is taking the lessons as it works with the union on new pay plans for employees.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the union, said he is hopeful about how collaborative the district has been in the work, and said that bonuses are likely to be part of the new salary structures for all employees — not just for nurses and psychologists.

A report in February based on early data had shown that a majority of the 20 schools where teachers were eligible for a bonus had been successful in decreasing their turnover. But updated data including the full 2018-19 year shows that the bonuses improved retention at just 10 schools, but did not prevent higher turnover throughout the year at the other schools.

Wilcox said that highlights one of his concerns about the pilot program: allowing employees to receive the one-time bonus at the beginning of the year, leaving them free to take off after getting paid. Wilcox believes that to get people to stay through the year, the bonus should be paid along the way, or after completing the time period.

As it prepares to renegotiate employee contracts this year, officials in a subgroup have been working on a salary plan together since February with money voters approved in 2018. Wilcox said the new salary structure could be presented to the full negotiation teams in January or February.

See the full report, below.