Bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools are on the table. Here’s what Denver teachers have to say.

Bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools have represented one of the key disagreements between the Denver teachers union and the school district — though it seemed Wednesday the two sides might be on the verge of compromise.

The union has argued for fewer and smaller bonuses, and for putting significantly more money into base pay for all teachers. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova sees maintaining certain bonuses as a fundamental issue of equity, a key tool in keeping teachers at challenging schools.

So why do so many teachers on the picket lines believe those at high-poverty and better-off schools should be paid more similarly? For one, they don’t believe the bonuses work.

The data from 28 Denver schools that receive a highest-priority bonus, which the union had been fighting to eliminate but said on Wednesday it would be open to keeping, is decidedly mixed. In other U.S. districts, some studies have found that bonuses can improve retention, with stronger effects for larger bonuses than those that are on the table in Denver.

Participation in the strike has been lower at schools that receive the highest-priority bonuses, according to attendance numbers provided by the district. Some of those teachers believe they should make more for taking on work their colleagues won’t. But there are also plenty of teachers who get these bonuses walking the picket line and willing to give them up.

“We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you,” lead union negotiator Rob Gould told district negotiators Wednesday afternoon. “We’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need.”

We talked to teachers from all over the district about how they see these bonuses. Here’s what they had to say.

Marianna Lucero, a teacher at Goldrick Elementary, a high-poverty school in southwest Denver

Lucero gets the highest-priority bonus but feels like the district’s pay system is hard to predict — and not enough to live on.

Lucero and her husband are living with her mom for now because the $1,400 rent they were paying before was too much. She just earned a master’s degree and now has to also worry about student debt.

“I don’t want to rely on that,” Lucero said of the bonus. “Plus with the community gentrifying and changing so much, that bonus can go away.”

Mary Jane Sliter, a math teacher at South High School, a large, comprehensive high school serving a diverse student body:

Before working at South, Sliter earned $10,000 in bonuses each year at Excel Academy, a small school serving a high-poverty population, though not the incentive for highest-priority schools. She says she’s a perfect example of why bonuses haven’t solved Denver’s retention problems. She loved her students, but at a small school, too many things were “falling through the cracks.” Between working toward her master’s and parenting a toddler, it was simply too much.

She walked away from $7,500 of that $10,000 to take a job at South. She still gets $2,500 for working in a hard-to-staff position, secondary math. Her life is less sustainable financially — but more sustainable emotionally.

“It was a decision to either give up the stipend or give up teaching,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s having the desired effect,” she added, referring to the bonus. “After five years (at Excel), I was one of just two teachers who was still there. They need better working conditions, smaller class sizes, more mental health supports.”

Becky Rowland, a middle school science teacher at McGlone Academy, a high-poverty school in northeast Denver:

Rowland qualifies for a number of bonuses, including a retention bonus if she returns to McGlone, where she’s in her first year with Denver Public Schools. But she thinks every teacher works “extra hard” and would rather have higher base pay than more in bonuses for teachers in schools like hers.

“I’ve never worked anywhere where they couldn’t tell me how much I’m making,” Rowland said. “It was weird to me.”

Betsy Maletz, a teacher at Steele Elementary, a highly-rated, low-poverty elementary school in southeast Denver:

Maletz transferred to Denver from the suburban Adams 12 school district because she heard about the ProComp incentives.

“Now I feel dinged,” she said. She said she’s seen her salary decrease as one bonus, for top-performing schools, went down.

Maletz said she has worked in high-poverty schools before, but said it requires a different skill set.

“Susana only addressing high-priority schools alienates us,” she said. “They’re trying to pit us against each other, but we’re all in agreement that all teachers need to be valued and honored.”

Karmen Kirtley, a math teacher at South High School:

Kirtley was on staff at Manual High School, one of the city’s most challenging schools, when it was closed. Now she’s a teacher at South, a diverse school that doesn’t receive the highest-priority bonus. As a math teacher, she does receive a bonus for being in a position that’s hard to staff.

Kirtley isn’t opposed to giving some teachers a bonus, but only on top of a reliable salary.

“We want a base that every single person can live on,” Kirtley said. “If you want to give me $2,500 on top of that, OK, but I’m not counting on it.”

Alejandro Arceo, a first-year math teacher at Lake Middle School, a high-poverty school in northwest Denver:

Called to contribute more to society — maybe spark a light in a student to pursue a science or math career — Arceo left a far better-paying engineering career to become a teacher.

At Lake, 94 percent of the students qualify for government-subsidized lunches and many have experienced deep trauma, Arceo said.  

“Educators in this school, we experience a different environment day to day,” he said. “Teaching is one those jobs, it is impossible to leave it home or leave it at work. It takes a toll on you.”

But Arceo does not think the incentives Lake teachers receive for working in a highest-priority school are solutions to improve teacher recruitment and retention, and foster equity.  

“It is no secret that at a school like Lake, it’s a tough school,” he said. “Yes, the incentives do help. But the conversation is much more complex than just money. The incentive doesn’t help alleviate the stress we experience day to day.”

Lindsay Bienz, who teaches English learners at Lake Middle School:

Bienz said the bonus might draw some teachers into the school, but “it definitely doesn’t keep them.”

“If teachers don’t want to be at a school, they are not going to stay if they are paid an extra thousand dollars. One of my hardest things about being at Lake — I love the school and I love the kids — but my friends leave every year. I’ve had to lose my colleagues every year. It’s hard.”

Stability in leadership and more resources would help more, she said.

Jackie Arriaga, who teaches history and English learners at West Leadership Academy, one of the smaller schools that replaced former West High School:

Arriaga has worked for Denver Public Schools for 30 years and laughs as she says, “I’ve seen it all.”

“We qualify for the highest-priority bonus,” she says, “But it’s something like $30 a paycheck. Nobody notices that. I hate when they say it’s a tough school. It’s not a tough school. It’s an under-resourced school.”

William Anderson, a social studies teacher at Manual High School in northeast Denver, which qualifies for the highest-priority incentive:

Anderson said the bonus has nothing to do with who chooses to stay at Manual.

“That’s not the thing that’s keeping me here by any means,” he said on the eve of the strike. “That’s not what gets me up in the morning when it’s zero degrees and you have to go teach kids.”

Instead, he said, “it comes down to the culture of the building, the administration. The support teachers have is huge.”

Geoffrey Stokes, a special education teacher at Cheltenham Elementary School in northwest Denver, which also qualifies for the highest-priority incentive:

Stokes said the incentive system didn’t factor into his decision to work at Cheltenham, because it was too confusing. The district’s pay system, he said, “sounded like an infomercial or a pyramid scheme.”

But he has noticed the incentives now, and he believes they show the district’s values.

“It’s a nice little cushion. Those rough days, you’re like, ‘I’m just going to go to Stapleton,’ but that does come with a loss of money,” he said, referring to the more affluent new neighborhoods in northeast Denver.

What has kept him at Cheltenham for four years is the passion for the work.

“At a school like this, you always feel like there’s unfinished business.”

Erica Meltzer and Eric Gorski contributed reporting to this article.