Tough talk

Denver teachers union’s strategy for this year’s contract negotiations: Go big

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

The Denver teachers union is taking a more bullish approach this year to negotiating its teachers contract, aided by a relatively new state law that requires bargaining sessions be open to the public and fueled by the notion that educators are fed up.

Its demands are lofty and its presence at bargaining sessions is palpable. Dozens of teachers have been showing up, and they aren’t sitting passively. They’re taking the microphone and telling Denver Public Schools negotiators how proposals would affect them and their students.

“It’s supposed to be about the kids,” a teacher said at a recent session, her voice trembling with emotion. “And we can’t serve our kids adequately if we’re not being treated fairly.”

The union is also live-tweeting the sessions, and when it streamed a session about the teacher evaluation system using Facebook Live, 2,200 people tuned in to watch, union leaders said.

Those actions have ramped up the tone of negotiations in a school district where the union has for years been losing political power as voters continue to elect school board members that back DPS leaders’ brand of education reform, which includes closing low-performing schools and expanding homegrown, high-performing charter school networks.

The union’s contract demands include a moratorium on charter school expansion, more transparency in school closure decisions and a $50,000 starting teacher salary.

“In order to make big change, you have to think big,” said Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and a member of the bargaining team.

Instead of nibbling around the edges, proposing things they think they can get, the union decided this year to ask for what it thinks teachers and students deserve, he said. Teachers unions in Chicago and Seattle employing similar tactics can point to some victories, including winning concessions on issues such as charter schools and recess time.

“If we never ask for it, it’s never going to happen,” Kern said.

Meanwhile, lead district negotiator Michelle Berge said DPS hasn’t changed its approach.

“Our strategy has been from the beginning that we will do everything we can to be generous to teachers,” she said. “We haven’t taken the position to start low so we end up in the middle somewhere. We’ve tried to be open and forthcoming about what we can do.”

The district’s salary proposal, for instance, would increase teachers’ base salary by a flat $572. Teachers would also get raises based on years of experience and education, as they have in the past, plus the district would contribute more toward their pensions. The proposal would also expand the number of teachers who get bonuses for working in low-income schools. The current base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $40,289.

Berge said the district bargaining team appreciates being able to hear directly from teachers, though she said the conversation can devolve when the two sides are having tough conversations about hot-button issues and passions flare.

“The emotions have always been a part of bargaining,” she said. Knowing what teachers feel strongly about helps DPS negotiators identify the most critical areas of the contract and push harder to come to a mutually agreeable resolution, Berge said.

But after nearly 40 hours of bargaining since negotiations began in January, the district thinks those resolutions have been too few and far between. On Friday, DPS took the rare step of declaring an impasse in negotiations, which means a mediator will be brought in. Berge said the two sides haven’t made progress on the major issues, such as teacher salary and benefits.

The district hopes the mediator will speed things up. The union sees it as a ploy to move the meat of negotiations behind closed doors. Although the sessions will still be public, the mediator could meet separately with each side in private to help them craft proposals.

“I absolutely think it’s a sign that we’ve been successful in public bargaining,” Kern said.

Audience participation

This isn’t the first time DPS and the union have bargained in public. Public bargaining between school districts and employee groups has been required by state law since 2015. Nor is it the first time teachers in Colorado have turned out in droves to watch.

But this year is different in Denver. In the past, the union and the district established ground rules about public participation (limited), and tweeting and recording sessions (not allowed). This time around, the union didn’t agree to any ground rules.

“Our union’s power is in the activism of its teachers,” Kern explained.

At first, the public participation was formal. The union would tap certain teachers to give short testimony on a particular subject at a set time. But over the months, that feedback has become more spontaneous. Berge said district negotiators have gotten used to it.

At an afternoon session last week, teachers fanned themselves with homemade signs in a stuffy elementary school cafeteria as they listened over a whirring fan to the discussion between the six people on the union bargaining team and the five people on the district team. In the cafeteria’s “allergy friendly area,” denoted on posterboard by a drawing of a crossed-out peanut, a cell phone on a tripod broadcast the session live on Facebook.

Nearly two hours in, talk turned to a section in the contract about when a principal must notify a teacher of a complaint. Berge argued the union’s proposal to require notification within 24 hours wasn’t needed because long delays were uncommon.

Teacher Margaret Bobb raised her hand.

“Can I give some examples?” she asked from her folding chair in the audience.

The 25-year science teacher and longtime union representative stood and talked about how she’d seen principals hold off on telling teachers about complaints so they could investigate, only to have their efforts thwarted by the school’s rumor mill.

“This, ‘Don’t tell the teacher, keep it a secret,’ just creates more angst,” Bobb said.

Other people in the audience nodded in agreement. Berge promised to take what the teachers said back to principals on the ground, get their feedback and come back with another proposal.

Bobb, who’s been to every bargaining session this year, said afterward that she thinks it’s been generous of the district to allow teachers to share their experiences and opinions. But she’s frustrated because it seems like no actual bargaining takes place at the table.

“They say, ‘Thank you for that information. We need to talk about it,’” she said.

Dixie Lingler, a 28-year vocal music teacher who’s been to most sessions, agreed.

“The district’s response often is, ‘We hear you,’” Lingler said. “In fact, I think in the last bargaining session I went to, I put a mark down every time they said that. … You can hear people but if you don’t take that into consideration in how you respond, what value is it?”

Both teachers said they like that the union is making bold demands for higher salaries, lower class sizes and more, including that each school have at least one community liaison, one full-time nurse and the equivalent of one full-time mental health specialist.

“There has been a lot of frustration in the teaching force,” Lingler said. The demands are “not necessarily what we want,” she said, but what is necessary to do the job.

Berge said the district is indeed listening. But the contract is complex. “There are few things in our universe that are simple enough that we can make quick decisions on,” Berge said.

She added that, “I feel like people leave dissatisfied because they feel they’re not getting a response. … It’s tough to defend every single practice from the district, in front of 100 people.”

From opposition to opportunity

The ballot measure that required public bargaining, known as Proposition 104, passed in 2014 with 70 percent voter approval and became law in January 2015. It was championed by libertarian think tank leader Jon Caldara, who said the goal was to move negotiations into the open so the public could watch, not open them up into a public back-and-forth.

“If the union wants to show up, even en masse, if they want to tweet, that’s their prerogative,” said Caldara, president of the Denver-based Independence Institute. But, he said, “I’d suggest they run it like any negotiation. This is not a public participation session.”

At least 12 other states allow public oversight of government collective bargaining, according to the Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Washington state whose website says it is “working to reverse the stranglehold public-sector unions have on our government.”

Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst for group, said that in the states he’s most familiar with, public comment is not allowed. While audience members will sometimes make a show of force by wearing the same T-shirt or sighing loudly, he said, outbursts are not tolerated.

The Colorado Education Association was among several groups that publicly opposed the ballot measure in 2014. (The Denver union is part of CEA.) Statewide union leaders were wary of the measure’s intent and didn’t like that it was drafted without input from educators.

But CEA vice president Amie Baca-Oehlert said the union now sees public bargaining as a great way to engage teachers, parents and taxpayers in the process. Open sessions have helped members stay informed about the latest proposals, she said, although she admits that most negotiations around the state aren’t nearly as well-attended as Denver’s.

“It’s not always the most exciting thing,” she said. “In some places, they struggle to get people to come. It doesn’t always have the fireworks that DPS and DCTA would have.”

In Denver, the two sides are scheduled to meet again on July 24 for the first of seven four-hour sessions set to run through the middle of August. The contract expires Aug. 31. Berge said she doesn’t envision the dynamic will change just because a mediator will be there to help when the parties get stuck.

“We want this process to continue,” she said. “We want the public comment.”

And it appears the union is ready to deliver it.

“Right now our plan is to go about business as usual at bargaining and continue to do the things we’ve been doing,” Kern said. “We’re committed to making sure this process stays in the public.”

Correction: A previous version of this story linked to a DPS webpage that listed an outdated starting teacher salary.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.