Contract talks between Jeffco Public Schools and its teachers union begin this week with a drastically different tone than in the previous two years.
While the negotiations likely will be less contentious — thanks to a new school board elected with teachers union backing — there is still plenty for the two sides to butt heads on.
How much to pay teachers — especially specialists and those who work in Jeffco’s most at-risk schools — will be among the most difficult questions the two sides tackle this spring.
“We’ve always had vigorous conversations at the bargaining table,” Amy Weber, Jeffco’s chief human resource officer, told the school board last week. “That has not changed.”
Salaries in Jeffco, especially for teachers early in their careers, have been historically low compared to other Front Range school districts. Jeffco fell further behind its competitors due to budget cuts during the Great Recession. Despite two years of across-the-board raises, many veteran teachers are paid thousands of dollars less compared to peers in nearby districts.
The disparity between pay in Jeffco and other districts is even greater for teachers and staff in specialist positions that are considered “hard-to-fill,” such as nurses and speech pathologists.
“We have great concerns about what we’re paying teachers to come to Jeffco,” Weber said. “We can’t be so far out of the running that people don’t even consider us.”
Union leaders don’t disagree that specialists should be paid more. However, they want a firm definition of “hard-to-fill” positions rather than a list that changes each year.
It’s less clear if compromise is possible on whether teachers at Jeffco’s most at-risk schools on the Denver border should be paid more than those at more affluent schools in farther-out suburbs.
That’s something Weber appeared keen on when she addressed the school board last week.
“I believe the work is different and we have to address that and ask if compensation is a part of that,” she told the school board.
But more money won’t solve the higher-than-average churn of teachers at those schools, union officials said.
“Giving someone a few more thousand dollars isn’t going to get them there,” said Lisa Elliott, executive director of the Jefferson County Education Association. “If it does, it won’t keep them there.”
Instead, the union suggests the district should focus on building strong teams of teachers and administrators in those schools and providing them resources and training.
University of Colorado professor Derek Briggs said research generally shows paying teachers more money doesn’t impact student achievement. But research is less clear on whether more money leads to better retention.
“It’s an age-old debate,” he said, adding, that a sensible mix of more money and resources might be a path Jeffco should pursue.
While the district and union are left to figure out those questions and others, there appears to be broad agreement on a once touchy subject.
In an about-face, the teachers union appears prepared to link pay raises to annual evaluations in some way.
One of the previous board’s most contentious decisions was linking teacher pay to annual evaluations. Teachers who were rated highly effective received the largest raises, followed by those who were rated effective. Teachers who were rated partly effective or ineffective were not given raises.
Reacting to that 2014 vote, teachers staged protests that shut down four Jefferson County high schools for a day.
The role of teacher evaluations and merit pay were also issues on the campaign trail leading up to the successful recall of school board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk — all three supported merit pay.
The candidates elected to board had mixed feelings on the use of evaluations. Most called for a review or better training for teachers and principals. None outright dismissed the system.
The union told the school board last week that teachers should be given raises if they are rated effective or higher. But teachers rated highly effective would not get any more money than those who are just effective.
That sort of system would guarantee most teachers an annual raise. For the last two years, more than 95 percent of teachers have been rated effective or higher.
Last year, 48.5 percent of teachers were rated highly-effective while 49.2 percent were rated effective.
That could change this year when student data is included in evaluations.
Board member Brad Ruppert, echoing most of the board, agreed that pay should be linked to evaluations.
“In the real world, compensation is always tied to performance,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to get very far getting away from that.”