Relationship Building

New Aurora union president: We need to look out for young teachers, improve relations with the district

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Bruce Wilcox is settling in as the new president of the Aurora teachers union at a crucial time.

Aurora Public Schools is coping with budget challenges and declining student enrollment. Teachers are concerned about growing class size, their pay and more.

Meanwhile, a school board election this fall could change the direction of the 41,000-student district, which has undertaken a number of reforms to improve student achievement.

The union has opposed some of the reform efforts — including bringing high-performing Denver charter network DSST to Aurora — but to little effect.

Still, Wilcox said he hopes to forge a more cooperative relationship with district leaders.

Bruce Wilcox (Handout photo)

Wilcox has held various positions with the district. He started working in Aurora as a paraprofessional and then spent 17 years as an elementary school teacher. He also has worked in district positions helping run programs in multiple schools.

Wilcox has attended meetings all over the district to hear from teachers and employees as he begins his term. He sat down with Chalkbeat to discuss the state of the district and the union:

Why did you decide to take this leadership role with the union?
I think we need to do so much more together. I know that was what I believe was Amy Nichols’ (his predecessor) intention — for us to work collaboratively with the district. I think I wanted to make sure that continued and hopefully that it improved. It’s so critical that we take the young teachers that we have and develop them into long-range teachers — the long-term teachers that stay with our district and have a great relationship with our district. Right now, I just see a lot of turnover.

What do you think of the current relationship between the district and its teachers?
I think it’s a condition that can be improved. There are three sides to this. There are teachers, administrators and then there’s the district level, all of which want what’s best for kids, and all of which want to improve the outcomes for kids. I just don’t think right now we’re all working together to do that.

What do you think are the major challenges facing Aurora schools right now?
I think teacher retention and development is a huge one. The biggest challenge with our student base is the declining enrollment, which affects teacher retention, which affects the ability of the district and the association and teachers to get better at what we do.

Do you have goals for what you would ideally like to change or accomplish in this role?
As far as the organization itself goes, that we move into a role where we are more supportive of our younger teachers. That we take on some of the professional development the district isn’t able to do, or isn’t doing, so that we can develop those young teachers, develop those new teachers. Or take teachers who are struggling but who may not be new, and help them all become the best they can be. That we advocate for the best learning conditions for our students.

What are your thoughts on the budget problems the district is facing with decreasing enrollment and the process the district used this last school year to solicit input?
As far as the solicitation of input, I don’t know how effective that was in getting to everyone. It’s one thing to say we provided opportunities, but then the other is what effect that input really had. There may be another source of input that outweighed it, so that’s a concern. As far as the budget itself, last year was particularly difficult because of the reduction in force. We attempted to work with the district last year in formalizing that process. It is in the agreement and in state statute. There is some area where I believe it is vague and as a district and an association we should be able to come to agreeable terms. Right now I believe there’s some room for arbitrary decisions that we need to remove in order to be fair.

Part of Aurora’s reforms have included adding charter schools, including DSST, which the school board just approved. Many teachers spoke at board meetings against that charter. Do you also feel it was a bad idea to bring the school? And if so, why?
I was one of those people who spoke at that meeting. There is obvious concern that we are bringing in a school, and that we don’t know how it fits into the long-range plan.

We also are at a point where we’re seeing a declining student enrollment and now you’re going to be bringing in a charter school which will decrease not the overall district enrollment but certainly the enrollment to the traditional piece of the Aurora Public Schools. In addition, DSST was the second school that’s being brought in different from past practice, so I would say I have more of an objection to how it came. Charter schools in the past have had to find their own location. Now we are saying that we have placed into the bond money to assist in building that building (for DSST). In the past if charter schools wished to come to the Aurora, they applied. In this particular case the district, the superintendent, reached out to them. I think there are some concerns about the process that was used.

Charter schools do not have the same public accountability that traditional schools do. They also do not have the same constraints, so they operate much differently.

The board had some discussion early last school year about the fact that per a new contract, teachers in Aurora received a pay raise, while the district was planning serious budget cuts. Do you think the pay raises were necessary, and if so, what’s the proper way to find balance between those needs and the needs for budget cuts?
That’s a much bigger issue and I think if we want to ask about should teachers receive pay raises, we should also ask how money has been spent in the district in general. We need to look at the big picture. If you want to retain teachers, then you have to have a means by which to pay teachers and to retain them and reward them for the service that they have.

We’ve had two pay freezes where we did not get steps and lanes (annual pay increases for years of experience or added education), something that is in the contract. We negotiate salary every year, and so those steps and lanes are not guaranteed just by being in the contract.

We understand there are tough economic times but it seems as if the increase or decrease of compensation for employees, and that’s all groups, seems to be the last thing the district considers in the budget.

Do you really think it’s becoming attractive for Aurora teachers to leave for other districts?
It’s certainly attractive to leave Aurora for other districts if you are concerned there are going to be pay freezes. If you are going to get those incremental increases in other districts and you’re not going to get them here, that certainly makes it attractive for some teachers to leave the district. The biggest thing here is the cost of living in the city of Aurora. By the numbers that were given (by district officials at a board meeting) our first and second year teachers cannot afford to live in the town they work in without economic hardship. So certainly if they have any kind of student loan it makes it extremely difficult for them to live here.

As prices increase, it affects not only our families but it affects our young teachers who are at the beginning of their careers. I have an awful lot of younger teachers who work multiple jobs. They don’t take summers off. They just get a different position for the summer. They work two jobs during the year so they can pay student loans and afford to live. So I think compensation is a huge issue. It’s a large reason people stay or leave. And whenever we don’t have stability in how we compensate our people, then it creates this doubt.

Is the job of Aurora teachers also changing?
Our population of students depending on where you are in the district is always in flux, which is always requiring teachers to learn and adapt, to acquire new skills and to do things that certainly I didn’t have to do 20 years ago when I started. Now I need to be knowledgeable about mental health and well-being of students. I need to know the resources that are available in order to do what’s best for my students.

The other thing we’re going to see is increasing class sizes as a result of the reduction in force. We really don’t know what that’s going to look like. The district will adjust as student counts are different than they anticipated.

When you have a classroom and you increase it in size that adds a lot of work. It’s not just that you have to prepare for more students. You have to prepare for more students that are at different levels of need.

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The state’s year-round scramble to fill teaching jobs

PHOTO: DPSCD
Miss Michigan Heather Heather Kendrick spent the day with students at the Charles H. Wright Academy of Arts and Science in Detroit

While much of the media attention has been focused this year on the severe teacher shortage in the main Detroit district, our story this week looks at how district and charter schools throughout the region are now scrambling year-round to fill vacant teaching jobs — an instability driven by liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers.

The teacher shortage has also made it difficult for schools to find substitutes as many are filling in on long-term assignments while schools try to fill vacancies. Two bills proposed in a state senate committee would make it easier for schools to hire retirees and reduce the requirements for certifying subs.  

Also, don’t forget to reserve your seat for Wednesday’s State of the Schools address. The event will be one of the first times in recent years when the leader of the city’s main district — Nikolai Vitti — will appear on the same stage as the leaders of the city’s two largest charter school authorizers. For those who can’t make it, we will carry it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

Have a good week!

– Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

STATE OF THE SCHOOLS: The State of the Schools address will pair Vitti with the leaders of the schools he’s publicly vowed to put out of business, even as schools advocates say city kids could benefit if the leaders of the city’s fractured school system worked together to solve common problems.

LOOKING FOR TEACHERS: The city’s teacher shortage mirrors similar challenges across the country but the problem in Detroit is exacerbated by liberal school choice policies that have forced schools to compete with each other for students and teachers.

Hiring efforts continue at Detroit’s main school district, which is planning another job fair. Head Start centers are also looking for teachers. Three new teachers talk about the challenges, rewards and obstacles of the classroom.

WHOSE MONEY IS IT? The state Senate sent a bill to the House that would allow charters to receive a portion of property tax hikes approved by voters. Those funds have historically gone only to traditional district schools.

UNITED THEY STAND: Teachers in this southwest Detroit charter school voted to join a union, but nationally, union membership for teachers has been falling for two decades.

COLLEGE AND CAREERS: A national foundation based in Michigan granted $450,000 to a major Detroit business coalition to help more students finish college.

High school seniors across the state will be encouraged to apply to at least one college this month. The main Detroit district meanwhile showed off a technical center that prepares youngsters and adults for careers in construction, plumbing and carpentry and other fields.  

STEPS TO IMPROVEMENT: A prominent news publisher explains why he told lawmakers he believes eliminating the state board of education is the right thing to do. An advocate urged Michigan to look to other states for K-12 solutions. And one local newspaper says the governor is on the right track to improving education in Michigan.

This think tank believes businesses should be more engaged in education debates.

LISTEN TO US: The newly elected president of a state teachers union says teachers just want to be heard when policy is being made. She wrote in a Detroit newspaper that it takes passion and determination to succeed in today’s classrooms.

A PIONEER: Funeral services for a trailblazing African American educator have been scheduled for Saturday.

Also, the mother-in-law of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, died in her west Michigan home.

FARM-TO-SCHOOL:  A state program that provides extra money to school districts for locally grown produce has expanded to include more schools.

BETTER THAN AN APPLE: Nominate your favorite educator for Michigan Teacher of the Year before the 11:59 deadline tonight.

An Ann Arbor schools leader has been named the 2018 Michigan Superintendent of the Year by a state group of school administrators.

MYSTERY SMELL: The odor from a failed light bulb forced a Detroit high school to dismiss students early this week.

EXTRA CREDIT: Miss Michigan encouraged students at one Detroit school to consider the arts as they follow their dreams. The city schools foundation honored two philanthropic leaders as champions for education.

And high school students were inspired by a former college football player. 

More money

Aurora school board campaigns pulling in money from big names

Aurora's school board candidates at a candidate forum hosted by RISE Colorado. (Photo by Yesenia Robles)

New big names are stepping in to contribute to Aurora’s school board races this year, including some longtime contributors to some Denver school board candidates.

Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, contributed to some Aurora candidates this year, according to new campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday. State records show they had not in the past. Ritchie in 2012 did support an Aurora committee to pass a tax measure for the school district.

The contributions are further evidence of Aurora’s growing profile among education reform advocates. Over the last three years, the district’s school improvement work has attracted the attention of groups and think tanks that sense opportunity in a traditionally overlooked district with a large population of underserved students. A couple of Denver’s popular college-prep charter school operators, DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep, have put down roots in Aurora.

The new campaign finance reports show that eight school board candidates vying for one of four seats on the Aurora school board raised almost $50,000 so far. One candidate, incumbent Barbara Yamrick, had not filed a report as of Wednesday afternoon.

Because four of the school board’s seven seats are up for election, and only one incumbent is attempting re-election, November’s winners could align as a majority and point the district in a new direction.

The district’s profile has risen among education watchers as it attempts reforms of some of the lowest performing schools in the state. Its strategies include an innovation zone where five schools have new autonomy from district, union and state rules, and through an evolving new process for opening charter schools.

The candidates who have raised the most amount of money are Miguel In Suk Lovato, who reported $14,181 in donations, and Gail Pough, who reported $10,181.32.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $10,181.32; 6,533.24
  • Lea Steed, $1,355.00; 878.24
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $6,365.55; 3,019.81
  • Kevin Cox, $2,554.00; $2,291.93
  • Miguel Lovato, $14,181.00; $9,336.96
  • Jane Barber, $150.00; $988.10
  • Debbie Gerkin, $7,755.43; $2,350.24
  • Marques Ivey, $4,965.30; $2,791.84/li>
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

Both received donations from Ritchie, Hamill and Democrats for Education Reform. Lovato also reported donations from Linda Childears, the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, and other Daniels Fund employees. Lovato works there as a senior grants program officer. Pough also reported donations from Denver school board candidate Jennifer Bacon, and Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields.

Candidate Lea Steed and Debbie Gerkin also received donations from Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization had contributed to Aurora candidates in the past, but on a smaller scale.

Union interests also have been active. Four candidates, Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey, are organized as a slate endorsed by Aurora’s teacher’s union. The Public Education Committee, which is a union funded committee, donated $1,125 directly to candidate campaigns. The same committee also reported in-kind donations, meaning non-monetary, of almost $3,000 to three of the slate members, for polling.

The candidates also reported their expenditures, which mostly consisted of consultant fees, advertising materials or yard signs and rental space or food for volunteers.
Reports filed earlier in the week from independent expenditure committees show Democrats for Education Reform and union groups have also spent money this year to advocate for some Aurora school board candidates on their own. Independent expenditure committees are not allowed to donate directly to candidates, but can campaign on their own for or against candidates. Their reports were due earlier this week.