Aurora school district and teachers union deadlock on pay, call for outside help

A teacher leads an introductory exercise with students sitting crossed legs in a circle on a colorful mat.
The Aurora school district and its teachers union have so far failed to reach an agreement on pay. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Negotiations between the Aurora school district and its teacher union have failed to produce an agreement on this year’s pay, and now the groups are again calling on an outside party to help them, using a step called fact-finding.

In this step, an outside investigator researches arguments from both sides and then provides an opinion and possible recommendations. It’s part of a series of steps laid out in the teachers union contract to resolve disputes when an agreement can’t be reached. In Aurora, the results of the fact-finding report are not binding.

The two sides already went through a previous step in the process, a negotiation session with an arbitrator. That happened earlier this summer after months of negotiations produced no agreement. But it didn’t help. 

It could take a few months for a fact finder to complete the investigation and submit a report. In the meantime, teachers in Aurora have not received any raise this year, and don’t know if they will.

“Our teachers aren’t feeling valued or respected,” said Linnea Reed-Ellis, president of the Aurora teachers union. “It’s definitely having an effect on morale.”

Salaries and distribution of raises at issue in Aurora

The master contract for the union in Aurora is in effect through 2028, but each year, certain issues can be renegotiated in addition to salaries. The contract bars teachers from striking while the contract is in effect, but protracted negotiations raise the risk that teachers will leave the district.

In some cases, Reed-Ellis said, teachers who recently completed a higher education credential like a master’s degree expected a pay bump as laid out in the past salary agreements, but haven’t gotten it, pending a new salary agreement.

Requesting fact-finding during union negotiations isn’t common. Jeffco went to fact finding in negotiations with support staff in 2021. According to the Colorado Educators Association, that’s been the only one in recent years. But now, besides Aurora, Sheridan is also scheduled for fact-finding in December, and Lake County in January.

According to CEA, 30 unions won an 8% or higher raise for their licensed staff this year. That includes Aurora’s neighbors, Denver and Cherry Creek.

“We have seen more activity, not just in the education sector,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of CEA. “People are really at a point, and especially in education, we’re just so intensely feeling the ramifications of decades of underfunding, and we’ve been talking about it for a while, about how people are having to work two to three jobs just to make ends meet.”

“Different districts are approaching that differently,” she said. 

In Aurora, part of the issue is how raises might be distributed. 

The Aurora school district set aside $21.5 million in its budget to cover raises for this current school year, but wants to devote most of that to raising the district’s starting salary, which district leaders say has fallen behind neighboring districts.

In Aurora, the current starting salary for a new teacher with just a bachelor’s degree is $46,894. In Cherry Creek, by comparison, it’s $58,710, and in Denver, it’s $54,141. 

Brett Johnson, chief financial officer for the Aurora school district, said that over the past 10 years, the district’s raises for veteran teachers have been double those for starting teachers. Experienced teachers — those with at least 10 years but less than 25 years in the classroom — have seen their salaries go up between $18,000 and $19,000 over the last decade, Johnson said, while the district’s starting salary has increased by just $9,500.

“I would argue that’s in part why we’re here, and why it is hard for us to fill vacancies,” Johnson said. 

The district said that from 2019 through 2021, each first day of school, the district started with more than 98% of positions filled. In fall of 2022, that dropped to 94.88%, and this fall school started with 95.92% of positions filled.

Both proposals would allow teachers to get a raise for a gaining an additional year of experience and for having completed more education,

The teachers union proposal would also bump up all salaries in the salary schedule by another $5,500 per year. 

Reed-Ellis, the president of the local teachers union, said that surveys of their members show that teachers don’t want uneven raises. 

“The proposal from the district came back as incredibly disrespectful to our members,” Reed-Ellis said. “Veteran educators, these are the people who have stuck it out through COVID and the Great Recession and remained dedicated to our district.”

Aurora school district cites last year’s raises

Johnson, the district CFO, believes that the union proposal would cost the district four times what it has budgeted.

Johnson said that while the district does have an increase in revenue, half of it was already factored into covering the nearly 8.5% raises teachers got last year.

“School finance has a one-year lag in terms of how it applies inflation,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want to wait. We wanted to give relief for our staff one year early, so we spent one-time money of our reserves to do that.”

The district was counting on this year’s increase in revenue to maintain those increases moving forward, he said, meaning only the $21.5 million that has been budgeted is available for raises.

That is one of the factors that the union and the district disagree on.

Aurora Superintendent Michael Giles said the district is “extremely motivated to appropriately compensate our educators.” 

“My greatest hope is that we’re able to sooner rather than later,” he added.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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